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Roxbury residents weigh in on housing barriers

Equity is in focus as city prepares its Assessment of Fair Housing report

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Boston’s racial segregation across neighborhoods is no secret, and in a series of meetings around the city this summer, officials want to find out if and how policies and practices around housing are keeping residents divided into enclaves and what impact this has on quality of life.

The Boston branch of the NAACP and the Roxbury Neighborhood Council, in conjunction with the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, held one such meeting at the Dudley library branch last week.

“Where you live has an impact on a lot of other opportunities that you have,” said Bob Terrell of the Roxbury Neighborhood Council, opening the meeting. He cited such factors as access to quality schools, employment, transportation access, environmentally-healthy neighborhoods and exposure to poverty.

“Living in an area that has a high poverty rate is considered in itself a disadvantage,” he said. He noted that in Boston, high concentrations of poverty and high concentrations of residents of color tend to align.

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The meeting come as the city develops its Assessment of Fair Housing report, due soon to the federal government. Cities that seek to receive federal Housing and Urban Development dollars must demonstrate that they are working to serve all residents equitably, and are guided to establish locally-specific goals. This goal-setting includes creating plans for overcoming opportunity and housing choice barriers and promoting inclusive, integrated communities. The plans should be actionable during the next five years.

Resident feedback to help refine and shape the Assessment of Fair Housing plan is due by July 27. The city’s second draft of the plan will be released to the public on August 8. The AFH final draft is due to HUD on October 4.

Dudley speaks

About 15 to 20 people, including the moderators and organization representatives, were present at the Dudley Square meeting. During a small-group discussion, several attendees said one barrier to meeting housing needs is the prevalence of tenant credit score requirements set too high for low-income would-be renters to meet. On a neighborhood-wide level, several Roxbury residents said they face the burdens of limited access to city services and healthy food.

Landlord-tenant relations

Kimberly Lyle, a Roxbury resident, said her mother and sister frequently face landlords who will not take their Section 8 vouchers. Also attending was Pam Goncalves, who works at a homeless shelter as well as at Project Place, an organization aimed at helping individuals leave homelessness and unemployment. Goncalves said high credit score requirements often put housing out of reach of the formerly homeless and of those exiting rehab programs. She said she sees cases of women remaining in domestic violence situations and people staying at shelters for two years because they cannot find a landlord who will accept them.

Still, attendees said also that they understand the other side. Goncalves was once a landlord and found that some — not all — of her Section 8 tenants were unruly and created expensive property damage, with repair expenses coming out of her pocket. Given that experience, she said she can see why some landlords choose steep credit score cutoffs that block all low-income tenants, rather than take the risk. Denisha McDonald of the Boston branch of the NAACP added that she is aware of landlords who keep properties vacant rather than take a risk on tenants.

Some solutions may be in the air: In March, the city launched its Landlord Guarantee Pilot Program, to provide financial and other aid to small landlords that rent to homeless families. Among the city’s landlord supports are a reimbursement of up to $10,000 for cases of unpaid back rent, tenant-caused damage or costs from similar unresolvable issues occurring within the first two years of tenancy, as well as assistance in finding and selecting promising tenants.

Attendee Lyle said that landlords who live in the property may be less likely than offsite ones to rely on credit checks for acceptance, as they are able to get a personal sense of the prospective renters. There are other advantages to onsite landlords: Goncalves said they are more likely to attend to and maintain order on their properties. She proposed that a homebuyer be required to live in the neighborhood for five years before renting a property out remotely.

Home ownership

With displacement pressures rising in the city, attendees also considered the promises of homeownership. Home prices often are out of reach of millennials’ financial ability, and may not be in alignment with their current goals, some said. Ownership often is beyond young singles and couples’ attainment, especially if they do not have generational wealth to call on, said Daneesh Thornton. Meanwhile, Lyle, who does own a condo, says she is now uncertain of her choice: Traditional focuses on boosting home-ownership rates may not suit a younger generation that often needs the mobility to move as jobs change, she said.

City services and responses

Historic discrimination is among the forces that have resulted in people of color being concentrated in certain neighborhoods. As such, those working on the Assessment of Fair Housing report are paying attention to resource gaps in these neighborhoods.

Several Roxbury residents said they experience difficulty getting the city to handle regular maintenance activities such as street cleaning, trash pick-up or provision of public trash receptacles without being called to do it or provided with a petition.

“I’ve been requesting street-cleaning for two years. They just started,” Goncalves said.

It can also be a struggle to get responses to criminal activities that are not life-threatening but nonetheless reduce quality of life. Lyle, who lives on Clifford Street, and Goncalves, who lives near West Cottage Street and Blue Hill Avenue, say they witness prostitution daily. Side streets with poor or no lighting can create unsafe situations, said Thornton. One particular issue for Goncalves is raucous parties on her street that used to stretch until the early morning; she said for a long time, police were disinclined to come once they learned she lived in Roxbury.

“The prostitutes we see are not ones that’d be downtown because they wouldn’t be allowed,” Goncalves said.

Attendees said they also see complexity to the issues. Lyle said residents are reluctant at times to call the police, given tensions around police interactions with residents in some neighborhoods. McDonald noted as well that the city ceased repairing a local bus stop enclosure and removed it entirely after it was repeatedly vandalized.

Attainable healthy food

Improved public transit or greater access to well-paying local jobs also is key for neighborhoods with rising rents. Lyle said that many residents may need to trek out to Cambridge or downtown to work in order to afford housing in Roxbury. Another important outcome of better transportation and higher incomes is improved food access.

Grocery stores are scarce in the neighborhood, and many residents are reluctant to return to the Grove Hall Stop & Shop after it closed in spring of 2016 over evidence of rodents and other unsanitary conditions. Many rely instead on bodegas and corner stores, whose stock does not support healthy eating, Goncalves said. Carrying groceries on public transit can be a hassle, and rideshare expenses tally up. Lyle and Goncalves said they personally rely on grocery and meal kit delivery services. Solutions may entail encouraging more local retail food options, expanding urban gardening access and training or increasing incomes to balance out trips to the store.

“When I look at friends who come from middle-class families in the suburbs, they don’t have a lot of grocery stores either,” Lyle said. “What they have is the resources to go to those grocery stores or have those groceries delivered, so they’re not eating at McDonald’s every week.”

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