Candidates for City Council who embrace high-density housing universally proclaim that it will make Newton a more diverse city. The motto of one such candidate envisions Newton as “A Community for All.” Embedded in this belief is that Newton needs to broaden its socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial base to include people of more modest means and diverse backgrounds.
Who are Newton’s current residents? We are predominantly of European and Asian descent, with some African-Americans, Hispanics, and other groups in the mix. Religiously, we are largely Christian and Jewish, at least nominally, supplemented by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and those of other beliefs, not to mention atheists. In this sense, Newton is already diverse. But even if many students at Newton South High School, for example, speak a language other than English at home, they remain fairly homogeneous socioeconomically.
Clearly, the sale of single-family homes will not lead to greater diversity. Real estate prices continue to climb. City government has apparently given up on sustaining Newton’s stock of moderately priced homes. Thanks to the unregulated movement to tear down our Capes and ranch houses and replace them with McMansions, only the affluent can realistically afford to move here.
Hence, some people of good will have placed their hopes for creating diversity in Newton in such high-density projects as Northland, the Korff developments, and Riverside. But if that be the shared goal of citizens and developers, then we should be able to measure each project’s rate of success accordingly.
Since most of the units to be offered at these developments will go at market prices, those renters will largely resemble the more affluent residents already living here. But what about the rest of the renters? Here are the demographics that I assume we would all like the developers to attract:
1- Seniors seeking to remain in Newton by trading their homes for rentals, and other seniors as well.
2- Individuals and families of low and moderate income from urban and rural communities and even less affluent suburbs.
3- City employees facing grueling commutes because their salaries currently preclude their living in the Garden City.
4- Persons who might, theoretically, form a pool of potential employees to help make Newton more attractive for businesses to move here.
5- Young people, perhaps even our own children sometimes, who are presently priced out of the Newton market.
We might, of course, bargain harder with the mega-developers to lower their rents on a larger portion of their units. Otherwise, these high-density projects, rather than increasing Newton’s diversity, might bring us only more traffic on our roads, students in our schools, and pressure on our infrastructure. Furthermore, the city ought to gather statistics on those who move into these developments to learn if the reality in any respect matches the hope.
One final school of thought holds that in the long run Newton’s high-density developments, coupled with similar projects throughout Greater Boston, will eventually lead to more housing and lower rents. Known locally as the Reibman Doctrine, it states, “If you build them, rents will fall.” And if rents fall, a more diverse demographic might move to Newton. If only I could believe it!