In Brockton, Is Gentrification Here Without The Yuppies? Single-family home prices have nearly doubled since 2012, but not because of the usual suspects

2019-02-10 | The Enterprise

BROCKTON – When home prices rise, low-income residents are displaced. So goes the story of gentrification in cities across the country, where cocktail bars, yoga studios and other millennial places of leisure have become potent symbols of a broader inner-city class change.

But in Brockton, the saga comes with a twist. While the median price of a single-family home in the city has nearly doubled since 2012, fast approaching its pre-recession benchmark, demographic trends in Brockton upend the traditional narrative of gentrification in the American city.

Activist Angel Cosme called a meeting last week to discuss how Brockton should react to a form of neighborhood change that's occurring without its usual culprit.

The research, he said, points to young white people as the typical harbingers of gentrification. But according to a report published by UMass Boston's Gastón Institute and cited by Cosme, Brockton's white population is in rapid decline: the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 25 percent of the city's white residents have moved away since 2010.

And while white urban professionals remain an easy target in many New England cities experiencing neighborhood change, Brockton seems to be transforming at the hands of a different type of migrant.

The Gastón Institute's report said the city's black and Latino populations increased over the same period by 9 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Cosme titled the event with an open question: "Is Gentrification Occurring in Brockton?"

In the basement of a public library, a mix of residents, real estate professionals and politicians described the changes they've begun to witness in recent years.

"When I think of gentrification, I think of nice things coming in, but can I be in that nice place?" asked 27-year-old Carla Toussaint. "Can I afford to live in the neighborhood I grew up in?"

City Councilor Tom Monahan said he's begun to notice "luxury" rents breaking $1,200 per bedroom in his ward – a high price in Brockton, but one that would have renters lining up around the block in parts of Boston.

"Even making good money, it's hard to find a place you can afford without help or assistance," said Julio Rivera, a 20-year-old father of one. He said he doesn't want to see what's happening in East Boston, home to a rapidly gentrifying Hispanic community, repeat itself in Brockton.

"One thing that community loses is cultural identity," said Rivera. "Ethnic businesses can't thrive anymore."

Yet many of the traditional signs of gentrification, like minority-owned businesses making way for boutiques and chains, haven't appeared in Brockton, said Cosme.

Economist Jacob Vigdor, whose 2001 study of gentrification in Boston remains a frequently cited source on the subject, said it takes more than just a rise in housing prices to constitute gentrification.

"Typically when people talk about gentrification, they're talking about some kind of turnover in the type of person that lives in the community," he said.

Yet the median income in Brockton has hardly budged in recent years, and the city's traditionally marginalized populations only seem to be growing. So what do we call residential displacement if it happens without the yuppies and the coffee shops?

Vigdor said there's no catchy phrase for it yet, but the phenomenon is actually occurring in so-called "satellite cities" throughout the country – traditionally working-class communities that are swept up into a spreading metropolis's real estate market.

Veronica Truell, a manager at Housing Solutions for Southeastern Massachusetts, plainly spelled out what this means for Brockton at Cosme's meeting.

"What's really happening to us are the Boston people are coming in," she said.

According to the latest five-year average, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that, each year, more than 700 Bostonians move to Brockton, a city of about 95,000 people. Truell says many of those migrants are driven south by rising home and rental prices in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan – Boston's historically black neighborhoods.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors reports the average price of a single-family home in Roxbury is about $680,000. A single-family home in Brockton, despite recent price increases, costs less than half that.

"Bostonians are like, ‘Yeah, we need to get out of here,' " said Truell.

Ronel Remy, a Brockton resident who works in Boston as a tenant rights activist, agreed that Brockton is feeling the echo of Boston's gentrification woes, rather than a direct hit.

Many people moving to Brockton hold onto their Boston jobs, he said, meaning they have higher incomes than their new neighbors despite being victims of a housing crisis themselves. Rob May, Brockton's director of planning and economic development, said many of these newcomers are also willing to spend a higher share of their income on housing than longtime Brockton residents, who aren't accustomed to the cost burdens tolerated by their Boston counterparts.

What does that mean for Brockton's longtime residents? Some are leaving in search of cheaper housing, said Luis Martins, whose local REMAX brokerage has assisted with some of that relocation.

"I have three of my agents here today and we're moving a lot of people to Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford because it's more affordable," he said at the meeting.

May, the city planner, suggested that building more housing in Brockton, even at the more expensive end of the market, could ease pressure on housing that was traditionally more affordable.

"We've not added to that mix very well," said May, who noted that, since 2010, the number of housing units in the city has declined. "We've got a lot of vacant space we could grow on without physically pushing people out."

In an interview before the meeting, Brockton Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Robert Jenkins said he expects more than 200 units of new housing construction to come online within the next year.

"Ten years ago you didn't see anything," Jenkins said of development in the city's downtown. "We were depressed. This is the first real development in Brockton in I would say 20 to 30 years."

Joel Anifowose, who left Brockton eight years ago to attend Brown University, said at Cosme's meeting that he hopes to return to the city as a developer.

Anifowose, whose father is a pastor at a Brockton church, said he wants to use local and state tax incentives to build affordable housing in the city's downtown.

He now lives in Cambridge, where he is in the process of applying to business school. "Socially conscious developer – that's the goal," said Anifowose.

But Remy, the tenant rights activist, said increasing the city's housing supply won't be enough to stave off the negative effects of the real estate boom emanating outward from Boston.

"Most of us won't be able to stay here," he said. "It hasn't got so bad yet, but it's going to get worse. Brockton is next."

Staff writer Ben Berke can be reached at bberke@enterprisenews.com. Follow him on Twitter @Enterprise_Ben.