Editorial: When ‘affordable’ isn’t

With Boston housing costs at truly obscene levels, any foothold of affordability is welcome. The community’s recent success at gaining affordable units at 161 S. Huntington and the new pressure for them at the Norbert School are meaningful.

However, we should not assume that “affordable” is affordable. In fact, it is often still quite expensive.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority requires a percentage of affordable units in large housing projects. The least expensive of them can be made affordable to people earning up to 80 percent of Greater Boston’s area median income (AMI), a standard federal measure that includes wealthy areas. The current Boston AMI used for affordable housing purposes is a very comfortable $78,000 for a household of four and $55,000 for a single person when rating homeownership (and about $68,000 for four, $48,000 for a single, for rental housing).

Consider that median income in such affected areas as Hyde Square is about half that, and that the United States household AMI is around $50,000.

In practice, this means that a BRA “affordable” unit can be $200,000 for a condo or over $1,000 a month for a studio apartment. Those numbers would make most Americans do a spit-take and they surely shut out people who really struggle to keep a roof over their heads. It essentially means stabilizing the (upper-)middle class rather than housing the working class—a fine goal, but perhaps not the expected one.

Affordable units mixed into market-rate developments sometimes have had other devils in the details. Lower-income residents can end up priced out by condo fees, property taxes or other costs. They also may just feel uncomfortable about moving into a luxury building largely populated by much wealthier people.

The linking of affordability to market-rate-level incomes means that the more luxury housing that is built and occupied, the less affordable “affordable” housing anywhere, even miles away, will be.

In JP’s ongoing discussions about housing costs, advocates should seek details and numbers to see whether “affordable” is what it sounds like.

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