Boston neighborhoods reshaped by gentrification

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BOSTON – The look of some Boston neighborhoods has changed markedly since 2000.

Dorchester, East Boston and South Boston have become increasingly gentrified, as families with higher incomes and more education move into what have been primarily long-income neighborhoods for generations.

In East Boston, Frank Conte, the editor and publisher of and a former long-time neighborhood resident, believes that the new development in the community are long overdue.

“I think what you’re seeing is a lot of development where you have more affordable housing in part, but higher end condominiums on the East Boston waterfront,” Conte said.

He believes the neighborhood’s waterfront area has always been a jewel, but new development and easy access to downtown are attracting new businesses and people.

“The challenge is that East Boston is political and has a very interesting relationship with City Hall, but the new immigrants are less politically active,” Conte said.

More than a fifth of Boston neighborhoods – 21 percent of the 57 city tracts described as eligible to gentrify – have become gentrified since 2000, as top incomes of residents and home values rose, according to Governing magazine. In the previous decade (1990 to 2000) only 6.7 percent became gentrified out of the 75 eligible tracts.

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Governing compiled demographic data for the nation’s 50 biggest cities by population for a study it published last year. To be eligible for gentrification, a tract had to meet several criteria: Median household income and home values had to be in the lowest two-fifths of all city tracts. To rank as gentrified, home values and education levels had to rise significantly. Census tracts roughly correspond to neighborhood boundaries.

Several measurements were used to determine whether a neighborhood was becoming gentrified. To reach that status, a tract has to show increases in both inflation-adjusted home values and in the percentage of adults with bachelors’ degrees.

Much of the gentrification occurred because of the newfound popularity of cities, according to Steve Poftak, the executive director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge. In the past, upwardly mobile American households were more apt to move to the suburbs, but interest in cities has grown partly because of the many amenities such as coffee houses, restaurants and stores within walking distance.

But with significant constraints on the housing supply in older cities like Boston, the influx has pushed up prices.

“Much of the housing is growing but most of it is on the higher end of the market, which is causing a price pressure,” Poftak said.

This problem exists not only in Boston but in the entire region, he said. Poftak said Boston and other cities in the region are doing their share in developing more housing at reasonable prices.

“The real challenge for the city is the need of existing residents to benefit from the economic growth,” Poftak said.

Bob Van Meter, the executive director of Boston Local Initiative Support Corp. (LISC) said he was aware of gentrification in East Boston and South Boston , but the inclusion of a few tracts in Roxbury stood out.

“The fact that the median home value has gone up 40 percent – that’s startling,” Van Meter said. “There’s a lot of subsidized housing with relatively low-income but at the same time there are nicer homes on Fort Hill, I think, that are seeing an increase in value.”

Van Meter said that one of the things that his organization found during community meetings is that the problem created by gentrification forces isn’t rising rents and population displacement but the dislocation of businesses.

He pointed to the South End, which has a good supply of subsidized housing with low- to moderate-income residents who aren’t in danger of losing their homes.

“They feel dislocated or alienated from their neighborhood” because many of the pharmacies, locally owned shops and businesses, along with African-American churches that were the foundation of the community have moved out.

“There is a sense of ‘Yeah, I can still live here but I don’t necessarily want to shop at the Whole Foods’,” Van Meter said. Now, residents have to travel farther to get to shops they prefer. “That’s part of the experience of gentrification.”

Elsewhere, in the South Boston and Fort Point areas, home prices rose 89 percent and the population almost doubled, the Governing data show. The percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees increased from 30 percent to 70 percent.

In East Boston, the population had dropped by 277 since 2000, while the median home value climbed 37 percent and adults with a bachelor’s degree increased 31.3 percent. In 2000, only 11.5 percent of adults were college graduates.

An area in the Fenway also saw an increase in home values, surging 65 percent since 2000 and in a smaller tract around Peterborough Street and Park Drive, median home values more than doubled.

Nationally, gentrification has accelerated even more in many cities, such as Portland, Oregon, where 58 percent of eligible neighborhoods gentrified, and Washington, where the rate was about 52 percent. Minneapolis, at almost 51 percent rounded out the top three.