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Leon Kaye headshot

Boston: A Snapshot of Racism in America’s Real Estate Sector

By Leon Kaye

Real estate companies are among the businesses that have said they “stand” with Black Americans in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and over a year after his death, Elijah McClain. The problem is that once again, words are not matching deeds – and a potential wave of evictions in Boston offers a snapshot showing how people of color are at most risk during this pandemic and concurrent economic crisis.

People of color are at high risk of eviction in Boston

A new study led by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology shows that communities of color in Boston are at a much higher risk of eviction than neighborhoods that are predominately white.

The wide discrepancies in eviction rates is nothing new; the MIT study showed in the past decade, people of color in Boston were at far greater peril of being evicted compared to their white counterparts, whether their rent was subsidized or if they were paying the market rate for the roofs over their heads.

But as we’ve seen during this pandemic, the ravages of COVID-19 have exacerbated what people of color have long confronted when it comes to the risk of losing their homes. The study noted that between March 1, when it was clear Boston was becoming a hotspot of the novel coronavirus, to April 20, when Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation that enacted a moratorium on evictions, landlords embarked on an eviction notice spree.

The result: 78 percent of Boston’s eviction cases that were suspended due to the Massachusetts-wide moratorium were in communities of color. Furthermore, the number of eviction notices could have been higher than what the MIT research reviewed were able to cull from local court records – as in just about any U.S. town and city, many evictions in Boston do not undergo a formal legal process.

Evictions are one leading contributor leading families to become trapped within a cycle of poverty. Unstable employment, of course, can lead to a family falling behind on rent. An eviction than can lead to the piling of additional debt, including back payments for missed rent payments, the costs of storage units, moving costs and the security deposits that are often a condition to signing a new rental lease.

Hence Boston exhibits the racial wealth gap common across the U.S. The MIT pointed to a 2015 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston study, which found that the average net worth of a white family in Boston was close to $250,000. For Latino families, the average was $2,700.

That same year, the average net worth of a Black family in Boston was $8.

The real estate industry and systematic racism

But it’s not just the high cost of living in Boston and dubious real estate practices that have led to this discrepancy in evictions. A legacy of systematic racism in Boston has further contributed to the difficulty people of color have faced to finding and maintaining a home within the city. During the pre-World War II era, real estate developers were key to racially restrictive covenants that prevented Black families from living in many Boston neighborhoods. From the 1930s to late 1960s, redlining, the practice of deeming neighborhoods with a high percentage of people of color as high-risk, resulted in barriers to families wishing to buy a home. In the long term, that practice in particular denied them a path to building wealth.

Blockbusting, a tactic by which real estate developers would buy homes cheap from white families desperate to move to the suburbs – only to have those same properties sold or rented to black families at highly predatory rates – was common throughout the 1980s.

Urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s, the violent backlash against school desegregation during the 1970s, and the foreclosure crisis that swept across America a decade ago, also had a disproportional impact on people of color.  

“When we examine all of these factors together, we find that the share of Black renters in a neighborhood continues to be closely related to the likelihood of eviction filings, above and beyond the effects of poverty rate, median household income, or rent burden in that neighborhood,” concluded the survey’s authors.

A seven-point plan for fairer housing

The MIT researchers concluded with a seven-point plan to reverse this trend. As the U.S. real estate sector has long aided and abetted systematic racism in the U.S., advocates for fair housing face can expect a huge challenge in Boston and across the rest of the U.S.

“The same attitude that would lead an officer to kneel in the back of the neck of someone under their custody, under their supposed care, are the same attitudes harbored by bank lenders, real estate agents, appraisers,” said  Andre M. Perry of the Brookings Institution during an interview with Vox last month.

Nevertheless, stakeholders within the real estate sector would be wise to back their current words with the support of such long-term actions as such action would help improve the industry’s reputation while building trust. These solutions include rent control; the guarantee of fair legal representation; the passage of just-cause eviction notices; more options for tenants to buy the property at which they live; the sealing of eviction records; more rental assistance; and finally, more funds for affordable housing.

Image credit: Michael Browning/Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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