JP Observer: Faulty formula deprives deserving residents of affordable housing here

“That’s not affordable here!”

Every time the federal income qualifications for a below-market housing development in Jamaica Plain get announced in public, you can hear people muttering or even calling out that the numbers look too high to be affordable to people here. Those folks with common sense—along with people make similar comments in meetings—are right.

At the root of the problem is the Area Median Income (AMI) as determined by the federal Department of Housing and Development (HUD) each year, based on census data. People making less than median income deserve to pay less, to varying degrees, so the housing is more “affordable” to them, the logical thinking goes.

But the labels and the matching math that is used cause big problems.

Ever travel out of state and meet someone who says they’re from Boston?

“Oh, I’m from Jamaica Plain,” you say. “How about you?”

“Well, I’m from Amesbury,” one person said to me in answer.

“Melrose,” another replied.

HUD makes a similar—but far more serious—geographical naming mistake when it figures out what’s called “Boston AMI” each year. Boston is actually just one city on the HUD-created region of 113 separate cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts. HUD chooses to label the whole mostly northeastern area of the state “Boston,” or sometimes “Boston-Quincy-Cambridge.”

Therefore, household incomes in well-off Wellesley and Swampscott and dozens of suburban communities are mixed in with Boston’s. In the current formula, the median of all of those incomes is used to determine affordability numbers for each household that applies anywhere in that big area. 

The result: Recent numbers show the median income of HUD’s “Boston Area” households to be $77.8k a year. The real Boston’s median is only $55.3k. The larger area median income forms the basis for calculating what’s deemed “affordable” to local individuals and families. 

Applying the large, official Boston Area Median Income number to Jamaica Plain and other actual Boston residents is ridiculous.

The huge injustice caused by this blatant inaccuracy needs to be corrected. Deserving local residents are being left out. Boston needs to be treated as the genuine entity it is for determining housing affordability for its residents—the sooner the better.

Preliminary Election mayoral candidate and former Chief of Economic Development for the City of Boston John Barros and others familiar with “affordable” housing as HUD defines it, know about this significant problem. In a published interview with the Boston Society for Architecture Barros vowed that, if elected, he would fix it, 

“I will mandate that all City sponsored affordable housing developments use a local AMI (‘area median income’) framework so residents have a way of understanding if the proposed homes are affordable to them and their neighbors,” Barros promised.

A new Boston mayor and city council will be being sworn in upcoming weeks. Every one of them and any other responsible Bostonian who cares about affordable housing needs to work to change the current unfair formula.

Here and now in the digital age, HUD should consider giving each city and town its independence for determining median income of residents. 

The math would be more accurate and the consideration of who needs how much help would be much fairer to Boston than it is now.

For more information on towns in the Boston AMI, household sizes and minimum and maximum incomes to qualify for affordable housing now, see: https://www.mass.gov/doc/erma-area-median-income-information/download and https://statisticalatlas.com/metro-area/Massachusetts/Boston/Household-Income#google_vignette

Correction: Contrary to what I stated in the last JP Observer column, there have been three women chairs of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) in its 36-year history, not two. Jamaica Hills resident Andrea Howley was chair for two years between 2009 and 2011. She has been a member of the JPNC Zoning Committee and very active in the community. 

Sandra Storey is the founder and former publisher of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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