Guest Op-Ed: How We Drive Development Without Displacement

By Maria Belen Power, GreenRoots

As our communities fight for environmental justice, achieve significant victories, and become healthier and more attractive to live in, we face mounting pressure from developers. Land is being swallowed up by investors and driving up housing prices, causing the forced displacement, or pushing-out, of residents and small businesses. And it may soon get worse.

Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Bill is pending in the state legislature. If passed, this  bill would have far-reaching and potentially calamitous implications for our communities, and with it the health and well-being of many Massachusetts residents. It could well exacerbate the precarious housing predicament many already find themselves in.

Governor Charlie Baker is advocating for the passage of a “Housing Choice” bill, a bill  that would make it easier for localities in Massachusetts to change zoning rules. The measure, which would decrease the majority vote needed for zoning changes from two-thirds to one-half, and which Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito is calling on lawmakers to approve before Thanksgiving, would clear the way for developers to alter communities with less consensus from cities and towns. There are claims that the law would make it easier to build more affordable housing, but there are no clear plans that outline how that could happen or that mandate the construction of lower-income housing.

“We now have the dubious distinction of having the highest median housing prices in the country and the highest median rents in the country,” There is, in fact, every indication that this bill, if it passes, will drive more high-end development, further displacing residents who are living on or near the poverty line.

What developers often miss when they come into a neighborhood and plan to build, is the awareness that those who are excluded from social institutions — those living at the margins — have a lot of resources — including ideas. It is this undergird that brought several community groups together.

According to the Healthy Neighborhoods Study, a nine-community, multi-year Participatory Action Research (PAR) project facilitated by the Conservation Law Foundation and MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, 72% of Chelsea and 75% of Everett respondents indicated that they are proud to live in their community, yet 40% of Chelsea and 31% of Everett survey respondents expect to move in the next five years.

We should be deeply concerned about the effects of housing instability and displacement on the mental, physical and social health of our residents, especially children and families. We know that there is more that can be done to keep our residents here. That’s why we’ve come together with organizations like Everett Community Health Partnership, GreenRoots, MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab), and Research Action Design (RAD) to create a toolkit so that community members most likely to be impacted can advocate for policies to support equitable and healthy development without displacement.

Whether a community is trying to further understand how displacement shows up, create awareness among allies, or push for specific policy and programmatic solutions, simple resources can be used to build power within residents, as well as push for concrete changes within the community. Through the use of data and stories, residents can touch the minds and hearts of those who care deeply about their community and can implement change. The goal is for community members, regardless of their organizing experience, to be able to build power through collective analysis, create shared goals and actions, and develop guiding principles of equitable development.

We know that as communities become healthier and cleaner to live in they become less affordable, displacing the most vulnerable populations. Those who worked so hard to improve the quality of life in their community should be able to live in it and enjoy it. We know that communities have the capabilities to organize against displacement and defend their right to remain rooted in place. The ideas and aspirations of residents in marginalized communities matter, and with planning tools they themselves can be the ones deciding how their resources will be used.

We know that housing stability has many downstream benefits, including less obvious ones like better health outcomes for residents. Health is greatly influenced by many things around us, including social, economic, political, and environmental factors. How we shape our laws matter. And how those laws get implemented matter. It’s important that the voices driving that change be led by our community members most likely to be impacted by them. We must address this critical disparity as a new rash of development sweeps across the Boston metro area.

When residents are able to shape their own destiny, everyone benefits.​​​

Maria Belan Power is the Associate Executive Director for GreenRoots Chelsea.

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