JP Observer: Action is needed to preserve JP’s middle class

Boston, like most major cites in the U.S., is losing its middle class, according to the Brookings Institute and others looking at demographic trends.

A large middle class is what anchors and stabilizes the working life of a city. A strong middle class and a range of housing choices are important contributors to a community’s diversity. Jamaica Plain, like most of Boston, is in danger of losing that diversity.

Middle-class people are being driven out by escalating housing costs in a popular city and neighborhood—where housing prices are rising faster than working people’s incomes.

The City’s “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030” plan envisions a 400-year-old city of more than 700,000 residents who have a range of incomes. In the introduction to the plan put together by his Housing Task Force, Mayor Marty Walsh says, “…it is my job to make sure that… prosperity and growth reaches into every neighborhood and touches every Boston resident.”

The plan defines Boston’s middle class as households with incomes starting at $50,000—where eligibility for most government-assisted housing ends—and it reflects Boston’s 2012 median income of $53,000. The middle class makes up about 34 percent of Boston households, the plan says, but Boston’s middle class is smaller, younger and has a lower homeownership rate (43 percent) than the region at 68 percent.

Unfortunately, according to the plan, at this time, a household with an income as high as $80,000 is qualified to buy only 23 percent of housing and to rent 51 percent of units in Boston. And rents are still rising.

In the general JP area (as measured by an incorrect City map), it’s worse, because $80,000 a year qualifies a household to buy only about 15 percent of the housing.

According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Analysis of the American Community Survey 2009 data, 30.5 percent of households in JP made between $50,000 and $99,999 a year, 30.9 percent made more, and 38.6 made less. (The BRA analysis has accuracy of plus or minus 5 percent.) The Brookings Institute says the recession of 2008 dealt a severe blow to urban working households.

Another problem that needs to be corrected, the plan says, is that 40 percent of Boston’s middle class households are non-white, but only 20 percent of mortgages go to non-white borrowers.

The plan lists three ambitious goals for stabilizing middle income housing by 2030: add 20,000 units of housing affordable to middle-income-earners; expand the city’s first-time home-buying programs to help 5,000 middle-income households; and work to increase lending and ensure equal access to home mortgages.

Actions the City intends to take include: zoning relief; property tax relief; modified inclusionary development policy; reduced construction costs; use of city- and state-owned surplus land; improving the permitting process; and doubling the number of homebuyers assisted.

“Maintaining a strong middle class is critical to securing Boston’s future,” and “to building the strong, inclusive city this plan envisions,” the 2030 document states.

The community needs to support keeping and expanding middle class housing if we want a robust center in a diverse neighborhood.

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