BOSTON — You’ve likely heard about the housing crisis in eastern Massachusetts, with too few units available and prices always on the rise.
But a second housing crisis, one with effectively opposite circumstances, lurks across much of the rest of the state. In former industrial cities hit by economic challenges such as New Bedford and Worcester, vacant and blighted properties remain, home prices are depressed and federal development grant dollars are shrinking.
New legislation filed by members of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, based on research by MassINC and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, aims to address those problems. The bill proposes a combination of state funding and initiatives that supporters say will help towns and cities stabilize distressed areas.
“Everyone here who’s been to a gateway city or lives in a gateway city knows that there’s much more to us than just our downtowns or our Main Streets,” said Sen. Brendan Crighton, who sponsored the legislation last week alongside Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford. “There’s really an opportunity to change these neighborhoods.”
The bill has five key components designed to reverse damaging economic trends.
The proposal would double the annual cap of the Housing Development Incentive Program to $20 million and create a “spot blight rehabilitation program” to help cities address residential properties that have been left vacant by landlords or developers. It also suggests establishing a housing commission specifically to study weak markets, ensuring the Massachusetts School Building Authority considers neighborhood vitality when weighing proposals, and requiring the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development to create a capacity building initiative.
“These neighborhoods are key to our success,” Cabral said. “We think by targeting these five levels, we can accomplishment a lot in our cities and towns.”
Speakers also suggested that vacant, blighted properties could in some cases be taken by eminent domain and converted to housing units or businesses. They pointed to Baker administration efforts to find modern functions for underutilized properties as a positive first step, but said further effort is needed.
The proposal is built on a report by MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank, and the MACDC completed earlier this year. Representatives from the groups joined lawmakers Wednesday to promote the bill, where copies of the 24-page report were handed out.
“It really comes back to neighborhood policy that we’ve been lacking in some way since the federal government walked off the job,” said Ben Forman, executive director of MassINC’s Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. “These neighborhoods are the greatest assets to our cities.”
Authors of the report found several indicators that lower-income neighborhoods across the state face key structural challenges. Since 2000, for example, the number of residents in areas with 40 percent or higher poverty rates has doubled. So-called “gateway cities” have seen a decrease in federal and state funding for public works and community development in recent decades as well.
Another key area affected is real estate. In Boston, home values have increased 46 percent since 2006, the report found, while values in Fall River, Fitchburg and Worcester all decreased 15 percent over the same timespan.
″(The report) brings out in stark detail a phenomenon all of us are feeling: an economy that is increasingly vacuuming our outlying regions, our outlying cities, of opportunity and job growth and is concentrating job creation in the Boston corridor alone,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, who spoke at Wednesday’s event. “Ultimately, that’s not sustainable.”