Artists and the Boston Housing Crisis
There have been a couple of related alarums sounded in the Boston press over the last few weeks. The first is that our fair city has crazy high rents. True, this is not precisely news to anyone that lives here. But a low vacancy rate combined with a lack of low and middle income apartment construction combined with foreclosure victims entering the rental market combined with upper middle class empty nesters looking to move back to the city from the suburbs combined with lots of fairly well-heeled students from all over the world looking to rent while in school translates to a very tight rental market. So our usual crazy high rents are now hitting new apogees of craziness and highness on a monthly basis.
The second is that Boston is doing little to hold onto its artists (and other "creatives"). And since numerous high panjandrums of pop economic prognostication regularly tell us that the key to urban success in the 21st century involves letting artists and hipster entrepreneurs take over working class neighborhoods - which then somehow kickstarts the local economy - the argument is being made by earnest booster organizations like Future Boston Alliance and funders like the Boston Foundationthat the city government needs to put forth a serious effort to a) make Boston more hip and livable, and b) support the arts and artists more seriously. These forces seem to be casting about for whiz-bang reform proposals to this end - while putting modest amounts of money into direct support for creative businesses. And, in the Boston Foundation's case, part of their program on this issue involves a kind of quixotic effort to fund "cultural flash mobs" to ... um ... do whatever it is they do.
Regular Open Media Boston viewers will recall that I've become serious enough about my photography over the last few years to get into an MFA Visual Arts program, and start to get called an artist in some out of the way corners of the local art scene. Which puts me right in the target demographic for such efforts. I'm also a charter member of the erstwhile "creative class" of symbolic workers - being a middle-aged journalist with a quarter century of part-time, temp, and contract jobs under my belt. And that is, after all, the natural condition of the vast majority of the much-vaunted creative class. A lifetime of unstable underpaid gigs. Which, not coincidently, has long been the lot of most artists historically. The art theorist Gregory Sholette has gone so far as to refer to the struggling masses of unrecognized broke artists as "dark matter" - the joke being that without this tremendous seething cauldron of creativity from which to draw (and "borrow" ideas from), there would be no art stars and no art industry.
That being said, artists and other creatives are still a small fraction of working people. And so while I generally support civic-minded initiatives from basically progressive groups like the Future Boston Alliance to push reforms like keeping the T open later, and then letting bars stay open longer or whatever - because, you know, drunk stoned over-educated slacker hipsters are just so much better for the economy than sober industrious ones - I can't help but think that forests are being missed for the trees in this discussion.
Because if we accept that artists are working people - due both to the artwork for which they get paid so little and so rarely, and the "job jobs" that they do to make ends more or less meet - then we have to concede that it makes little sense to privilege them above other working people when discussing urban problems that all Boston area denizens face.
Problems like the "rent being too damn high" - to quote both bizarro New York City political hopefulJimmy McMillan and parodist Kenan Thompson of Saturday Night Live - are the same ones that all working people face in Boston. So I think it's a mistake to separate artists out as some kind of privileged class and talk about solutions that will benefit them alone in the absence of having real discussions about meaningful reforms citywide.
On the one hand because no supposed reform being proposed thus far goes outside the corporate-speak-as-usual thinking that has dominated discourse in virtually all sectors of American society for the last couple of decades.
On the other because most reforms that affect artists alone won't be sufficient to trigger change on any significant scale.
So people can talk all they want about the need to support entrepreneurial efforts by artists and other creatives, and they can focus all they want on starting projects that benefit such creatives. But it won't be enough to improve the lives of most working artists in Boston - let alone even begin to meet the needs of most working people in the city.
However, there is a way to get some real solutions to start snapping into focus.
We could begin by recognizing that our business-driven modes of discourse have limited our ability to think clearly about either societal problems or potential solutions.
Because business thinking - that is to say capitalist thinking - tends to promote what amounts to individual solutions to social crises like Boston's housing crisis. And that just doesn't work. Unless one believes that the disease that caused the problem in question can also cure it. Furthermore such thinking is incapable of even analyzing the nature of such a crisis in any real way.
For example, the problem of rental housing in Boston is not at all "simply a question of supply and demand" as many mainstream pundits would have it. It is a problem of allowing the so-called "market" to control a basic human resource like housing in the first place. Rather than engaging in rational democratic planning in the public sector.
So, in fact, we have a crisis in housing in Boston because we allow private developers to control housing construction. Private developers are businesspeople. As such, their raison d'être is make a profit. Given that, they only want to build housing that will make them the most handsome profit possible. Be it with rental units or condos or single-family dwellings. This is why most of the 1800 housing units being built in downtown Boston at the moment are luxury units. That is to say they are being built for upper-middle class and wealthy clients. Developers will generally only consider building "affordable" units after negotiating generous public subsidies for themselves. Which is the case for both new housing starts or rehab programs for older - usually formerly public - apartment buildings.
There are a number of ways to reform this non-system. I assume that the easiest way will be to move back to a mixed economy where we get government back in the business of building housing again - using public funds to fill a real social need while creating unionized "high road" construction jobs that will themselves do a great deal to breathe life into the local economy and help revive working-class neighborhoods in the bargain. A much better use of government money than, for example, giving huge tax breaks to corporations like Raytheon in exchange for "job creation" that evaporates before the ink is dry on the latest "public-private partnership".
Of course this doesn't mean we just have cities like Boston build big badly planned Soviet-style tower blocks as was done around the US post-World War II in low-income neighborhoods around the nation. Nor does it mean that our famously contentious and nepotistic city government should directly manage such housing.
No indeed. We would want our best and brightest urban planners - of whom we have many at several fine universities - to design some really clever ultra-modern public developments. Then we would need to think about letting the tenants (or owners) run the developments as housing co-operatives or co-housing developments or any of a number of democratic non-profit housing management systems that middle-class hippie types and labor unions alike have been happily creating for themselves for nearly a century now.
And we need to site this housing where it's really needed. Especially in the at-risk working class neighborhoods like East Boston and South Boston and Charlestown and Roxbury and Dorchester that well meaning boosters like the aforementioned groups are proposing to colonize with college-educated artists and go-go symbolic professionals.
In general - as my colleague and fellow left-wing policy wonk Suren Moodliar of Massachusetts Global Action put it earlier today - we need to think about ways to get as much housing out of the market system as possible, and create so much good new housing under public control that it depresses the housing market and brings costs in the private housing sector back down to more reasonable levels.
If we can do that, then artists and creatives and the traditional working class alike will no longer have to struggle for housing - rental or otherwise - in Boston.
And private developers can still make a killing selling luxury housing to rich people that come from around the world to our once-and-future global city. But they can do so without public money, and without distorting the housing supply in ways that harm the 99 percent (or so) of us that can't pay $3,000+ a month for a 600 square foot 2-bedroom apartment.
Housing justice lies in that direction. Rather than using artists as the entering wedge of a new wave of gentrification at exactly the worst moment in American political economic history.
That's enough for this week. Comments from OMB viewers are welcome, as always.
Jason Pramas is Editor/Publisher of Open Media Boston ... and now ArtBoy [TM] - a leisure service of ArtCo International ...