BOSTON: Gentrification Hits Elders on Housing Costs


Photo: “For Sale” signs for single-family houses and condominiums proliferate in Boston’s gentrifying Jamaica Plain neighborhood. (Photo by Sandra Larson) This story is the last in our “BOSTON” series in NAM’s “Growing Older, Getting Poorer” section.

BOSTON–Boston’s South End is cited nationwide as a textbook example of gentrification, and the city’s Chinatown neighborhood is struggling for its very Chinese-ness as luxury towers proliferate there. In other Boston neighborhoods, residents and policymakers grapple with various stages of transformation, harboring hope there’s still time to slow things down, or at least mitigate the displacement of lower-income workers, families and seniors.

For older residents in the Jamaica Plain and Roxbury neighborhoods, experiences and feelings vary as housing prices rise and their neighborhoods change around them. Some are vulnerable to displacement, while others have found stable, affordable housing.

Longtime homeowners have the luxury of contemplating whether to sell, some happy for the significant financial opportunity but hesitant to push a neighborhood shift that often results in fewer people of color.

Million-Dollar Condos

Navigating Jamaica Plain’s (JP) Chestnut Avenue area with her walker, longtime affordable housing advocate Betsaida Gutierrez noted that nearby Forbes Street is where she lived with relatives when she arrived from Puerto Rico in 1972.

Latino families mainly occupied this and other nearby streets, and those blocks still have some longtime Latino-owned homes. But closer to the Stony Brook subway station, many buildings have been converted to condos and sold to a whiter and more affluent population.

Gutierrez, in her 60s and recently disabled by illness, has been lucky to land in an accessible, affordable apartment in one of the six JP Scattered Sites cooperative buildings.

It’s a happy ending to a harsh story. Gutierrez was forced out, given 30 days to leave another JP apartment where she had lived 15 years, she explained, when her previous landlord wanted to use the unit.

“We have worked real hard in this neighborhood to make it change, and all we are seeing is displacement,” said Gutierrez.

She pointed out several starkly modern, slate-gray buildings that hold million-dollar condos. These luxury buildings are interspersed with older houses, some carefully refurbished and others visibly deteriorated.

Showing a reporter the neighborhood on a June day, Gutierrez was surprised to find a new For Sale sign on a Latino-owned older single-family home, in addition to the condos for sale she notices every day.

“When a house gets sold, it usually turns into condos,” she said. “Gentrification is here, and I don’t know when it’s going to change.”

Opportunity Kicks Down Door

In Roxbury, change has lagged behind other neighborhoods, but residents and advocates now are feeling the pressure of sharply rising prices, a shift from a majority-black community to one that has growing proportions of both white and Latino residents, and growing encroachment by college-student tenants.

“It’s unbelievable how quickly prices have started to rise. It’s almost perpendicular,” said Roxbury-based real estate broker Sharif Abdal-Khallaq. He noted that a single-family home recently sold for more than $600,000, a price unheard of in the area just a few years ago.

“Now you’re beginning to see many, many more white people here,” he said. Thinking about race, he commented, “Gentrification doesn’t mean race — it’s just the vast contrast in incomes. It can look like race, but it’s actually more about income and salary, and the wherewithal to afford the property.”

For area elders, said Abdal-Khallaq, who describes himself as of a “seasoned” age, home ownership can become difficult over time with rising taxes and repair costs.

“It’s very expensive [to stay]. I think this is the time for them to take advantage of the situation, if they’re suffering and struggling to hang onto a property without getting help from their kids,” he said. “For me, it just makes sense to let it go and enjoy your elder years.”

Abdal-Khallaq is embedded in the Roxbury community as a longtime resident, owner of a family business, a landlord and a broker. He takes a philosophical, but pragmatic view of the changes he sees and feels.

“We brought a lot of good people into this neighborhood and made a good place for our children and grandchildren. But now the second and third generation is not following suit. And people from other neighborhoods are leaving theirs and coming here,” he said.

Still, he has concerns. In the past, he said, he considered a more suburban location but chose a city neighborhood where he wouldn’t have to deal with “the indignations that people of color face.”

Now, as Roxbury changes, he wants to make sure an influx of newcomers doesn’t make it less welcoming for old-timers.

“As long as the people who come respect me, I’m fine with whoever it is. But how will I be treated as I age myself?” he asked.

Dudley Land Trust Adds Stability

Diane Dujon, 68, remembers when no one wanted to live in Roxbury’s Dudley Triangle.

“It was terrible — a lot of abandoned houses, open land,” she said. Now she can scarcely believe current Roxbury apartment prices. “When I go down the street, and I see how much they’re charging, I think, Who can afford it? So people who live here are being forced to leave.”

Dujon feels blessed that 17 years ago she had an opportunity through a lottery to buy a home in Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s (DSNI) community land trust. Now, her housing is secure as she watches the area change.

Diversity endures in the land trust, she observed, even as it fades away in other parts of the city.

“Directly across the street from me, people are Haitian; next to them Asian; next to them Cape Verdean,” said Dujon, who is African American. Speaking by phone from her front porch, she added, “I love it. Because DSNI has kept it affordable, people from different backgrounds can live here. Every day I thank God for this place.”

Concerned about other residents, though, she continued, “Now everyone wants to live in the city, and the people who struggled to fix it up have to leave.”

‘I Think I’m Safe, for a While’

About a half-mile away from Dujon’s house, Ms. Bessie, age 65, rents a Roxbury apartment from a private landlord. In her 20-plus years there, the rent has risen a few times, but it’s been more or less stable, although she has no lease, just a month-to-month tenant-at-will agreement.

“I think I’m safe for a while. My landlord, he’s a good guy,” she said.

But she knows things could change.

“Right now it’s affordable. But if he sells, then I’m sure that it won’t be. It’ll go sky high,” she said. Across the street, she noted, an apartment is priced at $2,700 per month.

Ms. Bessie doesn’t know what she’ll do if she has to leave her apartment.

“I have no idea. I’m going to stay put until something happens.” She has applied for a federally subsidized Section 8 rental voucher, but waiting lists are long for them around the country.

“But what are you going to do,” she asked? “I’ve been here in Roxbury most of my life.”

Will New Housing Plan Be Enough?

Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration is well aware of Boston’s pressing need for affordable and senior-targeted housing.

“The market is producing high end units all around us, but the communities were built by seniors, low-income residents and middle-class workforce people,” Walsh said at last October’s unveiling of his sweeping new housing plan. “We have to make sure that as we grow, we protect and enhance the diversity that makes Boston a great city.”

Seniors are Boston’s fastest-growing demographic segment. Walsh’s housing plan calls for 5,000 new units of senior housing by 2030, with 1,500 of them designated affordable. The plan also discusses possible approaches to mitigating displacement in gentrifying neighborhoods.

So far this year, no new senior units have been completed, although 284 have been permitted, according to a quarterly housing plan update the city issued in May.

The city’s actions on senior housing will be watched closely by advocates like Davida Andelman, 69, a retired public health professional, who has been working to increase senior housing in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

Waiting lists are long for senior-designated public housing and other subsidized options, Andelman said, and much of the housing developers or officials may deem affordable is not really so.

“They say ‘middle income,’ but middle income folks around here can’t pay $2,300 or $2,500 rents, or buy $450,000 condos,” Andelman said in a phone interview.

She said she sees a lot of seniors doubling and tripling with each other to remain housed.

“We need to think about people aging in place in an area they are comfortable, an area they chose to live,” she said. “The bottom line is that the older folks get, their incomes more often than not go down. They ought to be taken care of, and respected for their contributions to society.”

Andelman went on that while people are living longer, crucial federal funding for senior housing has dried up, and state funding is down as well. The need for creative solutions is increasingly urgent.

“Public policy needs to catch up with the times,” said Andelman. “We need to think these things out. Time is moving on, and we’re not getting younger.”

Sandra Larson wrote this article for Boston’s Bay State Banner through a Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, with support from AARP. This story is the last in out “BOSTON” series on gentrification and housing challenges for low-income seniors. See those article and others on Oakland, Detroit, San Francisco and New York at NAM’s special site, “Growing Older, Getting Poorer.”