When Jamaica Plain economics are discussed these days, especially regarding housing, the phrase “accidental security” comes to mind. That concept goes a long way toward explaining changes that seem beyond our control in the neighborhood and might help us deal with some of them. No wonder we as a community feel so anxious about preserving our economic diversity.
Boston-based Poor People’s United Fund (PPUF) coined the oxymoron “accidental security” in the early 2000s to describe the situation of people who said they were financially OK at the moment, but felt they were just one setback away from financial crisis.
JP resident Georgia Mattison, a Project Coordinator at PPUF since 1982, spearheaded the effort pre-9/11 to document the finances of people above and below the median income and what they thought about them.
PPUF received survey responses from about 200 people on its mailing list, most living in the Boston area. Above median income folks reported slightly less anxiety about finances than lower-income people, but they still expressed worry.
Many of the factors that concerned folks then seem to be the same today. People in both groups reported their households needed two incomes. Most had little money saved for emergencies and retirement and constant worry that an illness or job loss could deplete their savings.
“It amazes me,” Mattison said in a recent interview, that people above and below median income reported in follow-up interviews that they sometimes managed to survive setbacks by chance, for example, “just because they had an understanding landlord.”
Insecurities that plague individuals can affect neighborhoods. Housing in JP offers a dramatic example of accidental security. From the 1960s until the early 2000s, JP had a reputation for being “dangerous.” That perception helped keep housing prices relatively low, especially in some sub-neighborhoods. Cost-conscious people used to joke, “If someone from out of town says they hear there’s a lot of crime here, don’t contradict them.”
In recent years, a combination of a real drop in crime and changed perceptions of city living in general and JP itself have made the whole neighborhood more desirable, including to people with high incomes. Housing prices have zoomed upwards, and availability has shrunk.
Some older homeowners here are accidentally secure because they bought their residences decades ago when prices were significantly lower. Some of the “urban pioneers” of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have paid off their mortgages. But some would barely qualify financially to purchase their homes now because values have increased more than wages. Paying real estate tax increases can be difficult for them, too.
As long as those seniors stay in JP (and more of them may as they join the year-old JP@Home program of Ethos with its aging in place supports), the neighborhood will remain more economically diverse. If and when they move, market trends indicate seniors might well be replaced by higher income people.
So Jamaica Plain has been and is still somewhat accidentally secure. Without support for policies that create and preserve housing and other supports for middle and low-income residents, the neighborhood could lose more of its diversity in coming years.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.