HARVARD THESIS JON MATHEW BIOTTI
BOSTON REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY: URBAN RENEWAL FOR THE ELITE AMD URBAN REMOVAL FOR THE POOR
I . Description of the BRA^
The BRA serves as tool of the Mayor to maximize land values within Boston through development. Due to his powerful influence over the BRA, the Mayor can readily develop large tracts of land for the purpose of obtaining tax revenue to help the city's fiscal problems.
The functions of the BRA are simplistic in nature. As Joseph Tulimieri, the Executive Director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority stated: "[l]t's a land development agency. . . you buy land, demolish what is there, relocate [families] if you have to, prepare the site for development and then select a developer, and you sell the land to the developer." The only constraint is that the area of development must be an area of blight. Chapter 121B defines blight as anything that "constitutes an economic and social liability, substantially impairs or arrests the growth of cities and towns, and retards the provision of housing accommodation; that each decreases the value of private investments and threatens the sources of public revenue and the financial stability of communities." This definition is quite vague and as a result the BRA has the authority by law and the means allowed by the mayor to develop any area in Boston it deems *to constitute a "blighted" area.
II. A Brief History of the BRA
The BRA was created in 1957 by mayor John Hynes and the City Council in order to solve, by means of redevelopment and development, the financial crisis that plagued Boston at that time. The BRA was created to address the needs of a stressed Boston economy. From the 1920s through the 1950s Boston had been experiencing a lack of building, a loss of jobs, salary income, retail trade and general living standard. The intent of the agency was to improve these economic conditions. As stated by Hynes at the adoption of the BRA:
"The most important fact about land development throughout the nation, as well as in Boston, is that most land is privately owned and most of the important decisions made about our development are privately made. This system of private ownership and development of the land has
((1 Please note that the information and quotes found in sections I and II are taken from "Maximizing Land Value: Analysis of a Boston Redevelopment Project" A thesis by Jon Mathew
Biotti, for the degree with honors of Bachelors of Arts, Harvard College, 1991.p36-39. For further information or a list of sources see the thesis.))
unquestionably been responsible for much of the nation's striking economic progress. . .[therefore, it is essential] to provide the incentive to public and private enterprises both to develop and to maintain land at its highest and best use."
Hynes clearly favored a policy of development and maximization of land values to stimulate economic progress.
The structure of the BRA is set out in Chapter 121B of the Massachusetts General Laws. Chapter 121B creates the BRA and outlines its basic structure but does not set out specific functions of the agency other than it must "engage in urban renewal projects. . . in the public interest." Since the stated purpose of the BRA is quite vague, the agency has a wide degree of discretion in determining the agenda for development in the City of Boston and there is little accountability to the public. A BRA report stated its objective:
"[I]n particular, [the BRA] focuses on the perspective and potential for investment that would broaden and transform the City's economic base, and create the jobs and generate the income that will provide for expanding opportunity for those who work in Boston and those who live in the City's neighborhoods." Thus, the generation of income through increased taxes and job creation has been the main goals of the BRA since its inception."
There are five board members. Four out of five are chosen by the mayor with confirmation by the City Council, which to date has rarely gone against the mayor's wishes. The mayor alone has the power to appoint and reappoint directors for five years and he alone has the power to remove them. As a result, the mayor is able to "direct" the BRA due to his influence over its composition and can unduly influence BRA decisions.
III. Current Disposition of the BRA
There is little question that the BRA'S agenda is to maximize land use by increasing tax revenue for the City, regardless of the consequence to low income families. As a result, the BRA has continuously shown a bias for developing land at the cost of displacing current residents; low income residents who are unable to pay the higher rent necessary to generate higher tax revenues. This is clearly evidenced by the gentrification and subsequent displacement of low income residents in the West End in the 1950s, the South End in the 1970s, and the Back Bay in the late 1970s.
Money is the reason the BRA, the City and the state would rather develop than renovate Roxbury. A good example of this issue is the Mandela Development. Mandela site on 5 1/2 acres of land that generates $200,000 a year in city taxes and no state commercial taxes whereas the Prudential Towers which also sits on 5 1/2 acres generates city taxes in excess of $7 million a year as well as millions of dollars in state commercial taxes. The Prudential also creates hundreds "of jobs for the City, whereas, Mandela provides homes for 1500 low income tenants who have very few housing options.
Mandela also serves as a gateway between downtown and Roxbury. Obviously the City and State are interested in increasing tax revenue and move the seat power by developing an annex to downtown in Lower Roxbury and one way to do this is redevelop the land where the Mandela Development sits, thus, further pushing back the boundary between downtown and Roxbury, providing more housing for the elite, generating tax revenues and displacing 1500 tenants.
Through the current BRA process, residents of low income housing lose in two ways. Most importantly current residents of targeted areas lose under the current policies of urban renewal planning, by being displaced. Under such planning, the land where Mandela sits is becoming more valuable to the city and the BRA if it is sold to private developers who in turn renovate the property, increase rent and ultimately pay higher taxes than the current residents. Secondly, low income residents lose because they are denied the right to participate in the BRA decision making process that affect their lives. They are denied access because there is no public comment period during the decision
making process and the BRA is not accountable to the public only the mayer.
In essence, the BRA has unchecked power and by law is able to "wheel and deal" to the highest bidder with little fear of retribution. One may argue that the BRA is an independent agency, but this defies logic where four of the five members of the board are appointed, reappointed and potentially fired by the mayor. It is not a far stretch to state the mayor has an incredible amount of influence over the decisions of the BRA board and thus his preferences are consistently taken into account, whereas the preferences of the people most affected by BRA decisions are not taken into account.
Because the BRA and other governmental agencies including the Massachusetts Housing Authority (MHA) are representatives of the government and not a private entities, they have a responsibility to take into consideration the concerns of all Boston citizens not just those who have healthy bank accounts. However, it is the opposite that occurs. Gentrification often makes strange bedfellows and in this city the BRA and MHA often finds themselves in partnership with banks whose primary purpose is to make money. These banks who rarely have a sympathetic policy towards low income families in need of downpayments or mortgages, are often willing to provide the same at lower interest rates to the State or others for the purpose of converting homes of the poor into townhouses and luxury condominiums. For example, the South End is a good case study of this hypocritical policy. In the 1970s Black, Latino and Arab residents who had lived in the South End for generations did not qualify for the $3,000 home improvement "gift" and 3% loans. Thus, state improvement loans went to the elite, and even the banks would not provide similar loans for members of the community because, they claimed the poor contributed to the depreciation of the land and were risky investments. Even low income families with built in home equity were denied loans.
IV. The BRA'S Agenda in Lower Roxbury
A prominent sign that urban removal and displacement is not far away is the recent BRA urban renewal office that was set up on Warren Street in Roxbury. It is interesting to note that the same office was set up on the same street. Warren Street, in the South End and we all know what happened to those low income residents. Every time the BRA sets up such an office, those communities have experienced displacement, such as in the West End, the South End and the Back Bay. Additionally, the city spent hundreds of millions of dollars to remove the Orange Line, which seems an unlikely event if the City is attempting to stabilize low income housing as many poor families rely on the T for transportation.
In both 1992 and 1993 the Boston Globe published articles carrying comments that depicted Roxbury as a crime ridden undesirable place to be:
"While the original marketing strategy had been to attract renters from the Longwood Medical Area, hospitals have been reluctant to locate employees at Ruggles Center, citing fear of crime as their chief concern. One hospital official reportedly told developers he would only lease space in Ruggles if they promised to tear down the nearby Mission Hill project." June 12, 1992
"We're really afraid we're being set up for a West End situation," said Policastro, referring to the neighborhood that was demolished in the '1950's to make room for urban renewal, "we feel picked on to an " extraordinary extent." We have hospitals, the project, the police station, the schoolboy track, Ruggles Center. The changes we see are reasons to be concerned." March 15, 1993
Despite concerns by non-Roxbury residents about establishing businesses or jobs in Roxbury, the City has brought the Motor Vehicle Registry Office into Roxbury, a hotel is being built at Ruggles, Police Headquarters is being moved to Lower Roxbury, apartments have been gentrified and numerous other projects are currently in the works. It appears the City is attempting to move the seat of power to Lower Roxbury creating an annex to Boston. It is obvious such a plan is not consistent with helping the current tenants to improve their living standard, but rather suggests displacement is not far away.
Moreover, HUD recently bestowed a $50 million dollar gift in August of 1993 to the Mission Hill community. This will not only ensure gentrification will take place, but it will also help satisfy the demands of the Longwood Medical Community, thus, protecting a billion dollar investment. Prior HUD gifts have ultimately aided in the displacement process and have not been applied to improving the lives of low income residentea. One most notable step in this direction is that the current plan for the $50 million gift demands that the number of affordable housing units be reduced by one-third: from 822 to 538 units, which would immediately and permanently displace almost 1,000 African American and Latino residents from their community. With $50 million dollars why is the city going to get rid of 1/3 of the units, obviously it would be possible to renovate 822 units with $50 million dollars to avoid displacing any current tenants. The only rational conclusion is that the City wants to "get rid" of the current tenants.
Another issue to consider is the relationship between gentrification and the lack of police security. Since the City has had the intention to move the current tenants out, they have refused to provide adequate police services as promised on prior occasions. It is obvious they refused to invest because they never planned on trying to improve the area until it is gentrified. The bottom line is the police protect the elite, but ignore the poor.
V. Plan of Action
There are several ways a concerned citizens can take action. However, it is important to note that because of the ingrained and complicated nature of this issue, the more pressure applied the more likely we will get results. The following is a list of ideas:
(1) Ensure that the money set aside for Roxbury in the City and State budgets goes to the needed services in Roxbury and not to empower the budgets of gentrification. For this to be effective, more information about the process by which money is allocated to various parts of the city from local, state and federal sources is needed. Moreover, we need to understand the process by which the monies are targeted and dispersed to intended recipients. More specifically, we need information relating to how the HUD money will be given to the city, the regulations that dictate its distribution and how the city plans to spend it.
(2) Promote and develop an amendment to Chapter 121B to be offered to the State legislature that addresses the nature of BRA member appointments and determines alternative methods whereby the
board has greater accountability to the citizens of Boston.
(3) Promote and develop a plan to force either or both the City of Boston and the Legislature to forge an investigation of the BRA practices related generally to how the decision to target an area is made and more specifically how does the BRA decide which areas are to be gentrified?
(4) Ensure that the members of your community fully understand the issues and participate, through letter writing or other campaigns aimed at local, state or federal leadership.
(5) Form a watch-dog group. Stop the backroom deals already rubber stamped. A good example is the continued biased way that the BRA deals with the Mandela Development and the 1500 tenants. In 1986, when Mandela was to be sold, the BRA placed impossible requirements on the buyer; requirements that no other buyer had ever faced. The BRA was aware that this sale would have allowed Mandela to pay all of its outstanding bills, including resolving a tax dispute with the City. However, instead of approving the sale the BRA consistently harassed the tenants and failed to follow proper procedure with regard to the sale.
The BRA stalled on this sale because they were trying to force the buyer to make concessions on properties in white, middle class areas at the expense of the Mandela tenants. When the buyer refused to make the concessions and the BRA got caught making illegal behind the scene deals, the BRA promised to allocate up to $2 million as a downpayment for the Mandela tenants to buy their homes. Of course the BRA has never followed through on this promise. Where is this money? Given that the BRA is bankrupt today, clearly the money was spent somewhere else. Not only did Mandela tenants not receive this downpayment, but the City, the BRA and the State moved to put the property in receivership. It is obvious they care nothing about tenant ownership, but are more interested in controlling the land.
Additionally, when V&M Management protested the lack of police protection at the Mandela Development, he received no response from city officials. Even after marches on City Hall, petitions, coverage by local newspapers and a subsequent law suit against the mayor and police commissioner, Mandela residents have still not gotten any response. It is obvious that the City and its agencies have no interest in aiding low income citizens better their lives.