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‘Just Not Fair’: As Allston’s Housing Costs Rise, Residents Turn to Harvard for Answers

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Dominated by stockyards and rail lines before 1900, the 20th century transformed Allston: waves of immigration made it one of Boston’s most diverse neighborhoods, filled with single- and multi-family homes.

The 21st century threatens to transform Allston yet again, this time displacing some of those very residents who gave the area its unique identity.

In 2011, the average home in Allston cost approximately $350,000. Just eight years later, in 2019, that figure had risen to $500,000, a 43 percent jump. Meanwhile, median rent surged from $1,279 to $1,740, a 36 percent increase, according to data compiled by the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development using five-year estimates from American Community Survey.

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Rising housing costs are only one factor — alongside a rapid increase in household income — that points to Allston’s gentrification.

In the same eight-year period ending in 2019, the neighborhood’s median household income spiked 67 percent — from $37,487 to $62,614 — suggesting either an influx of high-income or an egress of low-income earners.

Researchers have found that minority populations bear a disproportionate burden of such gentrification, which Allston’s demographics partially reflect.

Though its proportion of white residents has decreased since 2000, Allston remains majority white, and its Black and Hispanic populations have consistently represented only a small fraction of total residents, per U.S. Census data.

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The actor which may well define Allston’s 21st century trajectory is Harvard, which, following a spree of land purchases beginning in the late 1990s, is now the neighborhood’s largest single landowner. The University presently owns more land in Allston than Cambridge.

Some residents argue that Harvard’s expansion lies at the root of the gentrification, while the University points to its efforts to build and maintain affordable housing in Allston. It remains to be seen, however, whether the University can keep pace with the rate of displacement and rising costs.

‘Just Not Fair’

Anthony P. “Tony” D’Isidoro, president of the Allston Civic Association, has witnessed both Allston’s rapid 20th-century growth and its more recent gentrification from the porch of his Raymond Street home, which his family has owned since his father’s return from World War II.

For D’Isidoro, the lack of affordable housing is “restrictive” and has pushed out locals who can no longer afford the neighborhood.

“When we’re seeing displacement of people out of the city, because we’re making it so absolutely absurdly ridiculous for them to stay here, that is just not fair,” he said.

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D’Isidoro, who is also a member of the Harvard-Allston Task Force, alleged local universities — including Harvard — have placed upward pressure on the housing market by not housing all students on campus.

“Harvard, I think, professes 90 percent of the students are housed on campus, but a lot of grad students live off campus,” he said.

“The next mayor has to be more successful than [former Boston] Mayor [Martin J.] Walsh was in getting these colleges and universities to take more responsibility for their students in terms of housing,” he added.

James Stockard, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, said the University’s expansion into Allston has increased rental prices. The neighborhood is an “increasingly popular” neighborhood for students, including those at the Business School and those using the newly-opened Science and Engineering Complex, he said.

“More people would like to live nearby [meaning] there’s more competition for any given home and therefore prices go up,” Stockard said. “So in general prices have been going up in Allston, and Harvard’s expansion there will inevitably cause them to go up even more.”

‘You Owe Some Time with Us’

For its part, the University has invested tens of millions since 2000 into its Harvard Local Housing Collaborative, which aims to increase affordable housing stock in Allston and create economic opportunity for low- to middle-income residents. In 2019, it recommitted $20 million to the initiative.

The University also donated a 30,000-square-foot parcel on 90 Antwerp Street for a development including 12 affordable units, and pledged to devote a tract of land spanning 65 to 79 Seattle St. to a homeownership development that will be designed with the input of local residents.

University spokesperson Brigid O’Rourke wrote in an emailed statement Harvard “remains committed to working with its host communities to address the region’s high cost of housing and creating homeownership opportunities.”

Mimi Musa, a local resident who said she was relocated by Harvard, lauded the University’s programs for low-income residents in Allston.

“When I grew up here, when I was in the old community, which was considered like ‘projects,’ Harvard did a lot for us,” she said. “They had many programs, college funding, college grants, scholarships that they offered to us, and only us.”

At the same time, Musa added, she believes the University’s support has waned and said she feels isolated from the areas of Allston that Harvard is newly developing.

The responsibility for ameliorating resident frustration, per D’Isidoro, lies with the highest levels of University administration, including President Lawrence S. Bacow.

“President Bacow, if you own a third of Allston, my God, you owe some time with us,” he said.

In a recent interview with The Crimson, Bacow defended his engagement with Allston residents and officials, noting that “there’s only one me, and I try and spread myself around.”

Owner Occupancy

According to the city data, Allston has consistently maintained low home ownership rates compared to the rest of Boston, only nudging up one percent from 13.5 in 2011 to 14.5 percent in 2019. Boston’s owner occupancy rate averages 35 percent citywide, while the national average stands at 65.4 percent.

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D’Isidoro said low owner occupancy rates might jeopardize the neighborhood’s cohesion and political participation.

“In terms of civic engagement and stability, homeownership is very important,” he said. “Being able to have young people build wealth and stay in our community for the long term is important.”

“I have nothing against my rental friends, but, my god, we just need to restore some balance,” he added.

Local resident Lauren Gardiner said she was unsure if she would ever be able to own a home in the city because it is out of her price range. She added the City of Boston owes residents more transparency.

“Just being transparent about the housing crisis [as] a whole, we have an insane amount of homeless individuals,” Gardiner said.

‘Tools in Our Collective Toolbox’

According to Stockard, the housing demand in Boston is much greater than the supply, “so prices go up like crazy.”

To remedy this, he suggested that the city allow for higher density developments, such as five-to-seven-story mid-rise buildings. If such developments are undertaken by private, for-profit developers, however, they will impose the highest rents the market allows.

“As long as there are plenty of private developers around, they will not leave any money on the table,” Stockard said. “What we need to do is shift the ownership of more and more multi-family buildings into the hands of nonprofit organizations, and public agencies.”

The city of Cambridge allows nonprofits and public agencies to “get in the game” and bid for land through its Affordable Housing Overlay, Stockard said. The initiative, which the City Council approved in 2020, permits developments to be denser than what is allowed at market rate, as long as they consist of 100 percent affordable housing.

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Jason Desrosier, community building and engagement manager at the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, said major policy changes are needed to reverse the trends of the affordable housing crisis.

Some of those changes could include removing “restrictive zoning practices” and broadening the city of Boston’s Inclusionary Development Policy, Desrosier said. Last updated in 2015, the policy states that any new development with 10 or more units must either set aside 13 percent of units for affordable housing, create affordable housing units at another location off-site, or contribute to the IDP fund, which funds affordable housing across Boston.

“We need to also increase the tools in our collective toolbox — there’s not one policy that can remedy the situation,” Desrosier said. “You need to make sure that you have tenant protections in place so that as you’re building housing for different income types, folks who are at the lower incomes in the private market are not being pushed out.”

Harvard’s Future in Allston

Stockard said Harvard could contribute to lowering rent prices in Allston by housing more graduate students on campus.

“There’s no question that if Harvard instantly tomorrow housed all of its graduate students, rents would go down in Allston,” Stockard said.

Removing students from the housing market would not completely solve the problem of high rents, given that Allston remains a desirable place to live for faculty, staff and others, but it “would help,” he said.

Desrosier said institutions like Harvard and developers need to be “truly inclusive” with their community engagement efforts and tap into existing local networks and organizations to liaise with residents.

“There are organizations and community groups in the neighborhood that can work in partnership with these institutions or these developers to make sure that they’re truly engaging residents in a meaningful way,” Desrosier said.

Harry E. Mattison, an Allston resident, said the onus is ultimately on Harvard and its developers to make their commitments to keeping the neighborhood affordable a reality.

“Results are what matters,” he said. “It’s hard to judge how much any person or institution cares about something else just from words.”

—Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at james.jolin@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Maribel Cervantes can be reached at maribel.cervantes@thecrimson.com.

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