News, On Campus

Leaders in Mixed Income Housing Discuss Boston’s Affordable Housing Projects

College campuses create a shared experience for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, according to Andrew Colbert, vice president of development at WinnCompanies.

“[A] college campus is a mixed-income community,” Colbert said. “Everyone—whether they share a wall or a dorm room—they come from different backgrounds, come from different economic means, but it’s a shared experience.”

Boston College’s Corcoran Center held a mixed-income housing panel on Tuesday as part of the it’s “Real Estate Week,” featuring leaders from government, nonprofit, and for-profit sectors of the housing industry.

According to Kate Bennett, former housing director of the Boston Housing Authority (BHA), it can be difficult to get approval for affordable housing projects due to opposition from an area’s current residents.

“Neighborhood dynamics are incredibly tense in every neighborhood,” Bennett said. “That’s certainly true in Boston. Siting affordable housing is hard because people just simply don’t want poor people in that community, and they can be shockingly open and vocal about that.”

Yet individuals pushing against mixed-income housing can unintentionally harm their own family members, Bennett said. 

“Sometimes, they changed their mind about whether they wanted [affordable housing] in their town or not because they realized that the people that are teaching their kids and keeping them safe and keeping their houses from burning down really can’t afford to live in the town anymore,” said Rodger Brown, managing director of real estate development at Preservation of Affordable Housing, a nonprofit housing developer located in Boston.

Panel moderator Brigid Hanczor, MCAS ’24, said the cost of building one affordable housing unit can be upwards of $700,000 in Massachusetts today, but Colbert noted that Massachusetts aims to keep affordable housing below $500,000 per unit. 

Brown said the legislation around high-density housing in Boston makes constructing affordable housing projects especially expensive.

“One of the more significant cost drivers there, one was the building type, because if we want to go high rise, we have to be sustainable,” Brown said. “That drives the costs. And the politics of having to build union was a premium on top of that.” 

Bennett said there are many pre-existing buildings in Boston that could be converted into affordable housing.

“Throughout our city, there are many buildings that have moderate physical needs that could be targeted and converted to affordable housing, and we don’t need to rebuild and engage in all of the costs that go along with new construction,” Bennett said.

Boston’s complex history of segregation makes it difficult for communities of color to access economic and educational opportunities, according to Brown.

“The lack of retail, the lack of grocery, the lack of some cultural institutions, really make it hard to have a sustainable community,” Brown said. “When that happens, then the opportunities for economic advancement of families who live in those communities are severely limited unless there’s some pretty big intervention.”

Colbert said the social benefit of affordable housing units—increased educational opportunities and decreased emergency hospitalizations for residents with disabilities living in inaccessible units—outweighs the upfront costs.

“While we can talk about the total development cost being very, very high, when you look at the communities that we’re creating and the programs that we’re bringing after the fact to that cost or that burden to the taxpayer, that goes down overall,” Colbert said.

March 2, 2024