Globe Editorial

Housing plans for pricy Boston don’t fit gateway cities’ needs

December 12, 2010

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Third in a series of gateway-cities editorials running Sundays.

THE SIGNS ON the cement facade of Springfield’s Chestnut Park Apartments are hardly welcoming: NO SOLICITING, NO LOITERING, NO TRESPASSING, VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSECUTED. And yet the 30-story tower, with views across the sun-dappled Pioneer Valley, was built in the 1970s to be the city’s premier address.

After falling into decline, it became a subsidized housing development, where residents stare warily out of darkened windows. But within a block are attractions that would rival those of any neighborhood in Boston: A grand Andrew Carnegie-funded library, a regionally important art museum with a whimsical sculpture garden dedicated to native son Theodor “Dr. Seuss’’ Geisel, and, in a neglected corner of a churchyard, a statue of Springfield co-founder Samuel Chapin, by the eminent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Chapin wouldn’t be pleased. As in many other “gateway cities’’ in Massachusetts, the spirit of Springfield — the vision of its founders, enriched by generations of civic leaders and immigrants — is profoundly broken.

Yet its assets are visible for all to see. Springfield is still the headquarters of the giant MassMutual, Baystate Medical Center, and Smith & Wesson. It’s the largest city in a valley containing some of the finest colleges in the country. But with very few exceptions, the people who work in those places live elsewhere. City leaders say surveys show many of them want to be in Springfield — but the downtown lacks any place for them; it’s 80 percent subsidized housing.

Many of Springfield’s problems reflect long-ago errors in urban planning and shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment of current affordable-housing programs, which emphasize mixed-income developments and stronger neighborhoods. But Springfield needs to keep its wealthiest workers in its city limits. Its vitality, like that of other mid-sized cities in Massachusetts, depends on being a place where people live and work even when they have other options. Its tax base requires it; its ability to attract businesses depends on it, too. And that goal — which seems reachable in an era when people are rediscovering urban life — should have greater weight in state housing policies.

In Boston, many middle-class people struggle, even in a soft housing market, to pay the going rate for homes and apartments. In the gateway cities, the problem is precisely the opposite: Affordable housing abounds even in what might seem like prime central locations, and market-rate housing is either dilapidated or lacking altogether.

There are signs of awareness within state government. Last summer, the Legislature approved a $5 million pilot program to promote market-rate housing in places like Springfield, but that’s so small that Springfield’s chief development officer John Judge says, “We could use $5 million here in a heartbeat.’’ There’s also the state’s $50 million tax credit for renovating historic buildings, an important resource for gateway cities. But the program, while successful, is also plagued by complaints. “You usually have to go back four, five times to get the financing you need — that’s the critique you hear,’’ says Aaron Gornstein, director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association.

State housing and development policies must balance many priorities — and many established interests. But beyond the pilot program, which itself is only in the rule-making process, there is nothing targeted specially at the two dozen gateway cities. Most programs are suited to Greater Boston, where the demand for housing is still high enough to support mixed-income developments. That’s not true in most gateway cities.

Yet as a 2009 study by the think tank MassINC determined, gateway cities use affordable-housing programs anyway, as “the only way to remedy abandonment and blight.’’ Over eight years beginning in the late ’90s, Holyoke, for instance, produced 700 units of subsidized housing in neighborhoods that averaged a 43 percent poverty rate.

In many cases, affordable units can draw stable families into poor neighborhoods. But as the Pioneer Institute pointed out in a separate study, the deed restrictions limiting the income level of buyers can place a long-term freeze on a neighborhood’s prospects. The same policies that keep units affordable in and around Boston can prevent upscale neighborhoods from emerging in Springfield, Holyoke, and Lawrence.

Affordable housing remains a vital need across the Commonwealth, from Boston to Springfield to Pittsfield. But it won’t bring the upper middle class back to gateway cities, and it won’t create enough new customers for the shops and restaurants that give life to Main Street. At this moment, the ability of the gateway cities to serve their current citizens depends on a larger tax base, and there are signs that higher-income people want to come back to city centers. The state owes its gateway cities programs that help them to seize this opportunity now.