Housing Can Remedy Public Health Disparities

Photo courtesy of Wangkun Jia via Shutterstock

By , Ashira Morris

Elkhadir Didane and his wife lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Everett, Massachusetts, when they started looking for a new place to live. With their family growing, they wanted a home with a second bedroom. But they soon faced the same challenge as many other Boston-area families: With the average Boston apartment renting for more than $3,000, an affordable home is notoriously hard to find.

After four years of searching and applying for affordable housing, Didane learned that his family was selected for an affordable unit in Chelsea Flats.

“It was a great call,” Didane said. “It’s made a big difference.”

Located in Chelsea’s Box District, their apartment is in one of the two new buildings collectively called Chelsea Flats. About a quarter of the apartments in the development are affordable to families earning between 30% to 60% of the area median income, which translates to $34,000 to $68,000 for a family of four. All other units are priced slightly higher but are still affordable for families making less than the area median income. On average, the market rents at Chelsea Flats run 25% lower than those in Boston.

The mixed-income apartment complex was the first development funded by the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund. The Fund, a project of Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation (MHIC), invests in developments across the greater Boston area that will positively impact public health.

To qualify for investment, projects must prove more than financial viability. They must pass an impact screening, which defines metrics for a healthy neighborhood and determines if the development will help support one. The screening takes into account more than 50 health metrics, including walkability, affordability, access to healthy food and green space, and whether the developer solicited input from the community.

Didane and his family moved in June 2019. In addition to living in a bigger space, their new location right on the Silver Line 3 gave Didane more time with his kids. When the bus line debuted in April 2018, it was the first new line on the MBTA in over a decade. The Box District is the line’s second stop once it crosses over Chelsea Creek. From his old home in Everett, Didane was budgeting two hours each way to drive to Boston and Cambridge for work. From Chelsea Flats – before the pandemic – he took the bus straight into the city.

Silver Line stop in Chelsea's Box District
The Box District Silver Line stop is a dedicated busway separate from car traffic.

Just steps from the Silver Line’s dedicated, car-free busway, the new neighborhood was named for what stood there before: two box factories. For decades, they supplied corrugated and folding boxes to all of New England, and the area was zoned for industrial use. Now, the former factory site is full of homes – a different take on four stable walls.

Completed in 2015, Chelsea Flats was built based on a plan developed by Box District residents.

“The Fund’s intent is to invest in transformative change that neighborhood residents have envisioned for themselves,” said Maggie Super Church, who leads the fund’s work at CLF. “The Box District is a great example of the financing following the work done by local leaders.”

Key parts of the plan the neighbors put together included cleaning up the contamination leftover from the neighborhood’s industrial past, an explicit commitment to inclusive housing for a range of incomes, and easy access to the Silver Line.

Super Church, who has spent most of her career working in community development and environmental protection, often thinks about how the two fit together – and how to make it easier to finance projects that support both.

“Most financing doesn’t reward the outcomes we at CLF care about,” she said. “If we’re serious about improving health and environmental conditions for people, the financing needs to reflect that. Our role is to bring together investors who care about more than just financial returns and communities with a vision for inclusive and sustainable development. We’re the connector between those two worlds.”

Community room at Chelsea Flats
The Chelsea Flats common area is one of the buildings’ amenities. Photo: Traggorth Companies

The Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund works to fundamentally shift how developers think about the housing they build. The incentive? It invests equity capital, putting in money to become a partial owner and committing to staying invested in a development for up to 10 years.

For Chelsea Flats developer Bart Mitchell, the equity fund money made a big difference.

“Most conventional real estate equity sources would look at this location at that point in time not as an amazing opportunity to expand health but as an uncertain risk,” he said.

Mitchell had been interested in building in the city of Chelsea, which sits just across the Mystic River from Boston, for some time before the development took off.

“I was familiar enough with Chelsea that I felt the outdated perception of crime and dysfunctional government from decades earlier might have held back investment,” he said. “But those days are over. This was a great opportunity to create a mixed-income community.”

Chelsea is one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts: nearly half of the people who call the city home are foreign-born. It has a long history as an immigrant enclave, stretching back to Irish shipbuilders in the 1800s and a large Jewish community in the early 20th century. Today, its residents are predominantly from Latin America and the Caribbean.

However, being an immigrant community also means that Chelsea has been subjected to years of unjust housing, transportation, and environmental policies that are not unique to the Boston area. Chelsea is “the state’s boiler room, the spot where we’ve dumped the toxic ugliness that makes Massachusetts run,” Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote last year.

As a result, the disparity in basic environmental conditions between affluent parts of nearby Boston and Chelsea is wide: Residents in Chelsea breathe in the exhaust of traffic from the Tobin Bridge, which cuts through the city. That air pollution leads to higher rates of asthma and respiratory disease. Roads or industrial development have paved over much of the green space the city once boasted, depriving residents of easy access to the outdoors. A nearby landfill also burdens the city with pollution that contaminates the soil and water.

These poor environmental conditions create a host of problems that are made worse by climate change: Places with more paved surfaces feel rising temperatures more acutely, and increased air pollution worsens asthma.

People living in Chelsea already feel the compounding effects of decades of unjust policies – this year more than ever. The city has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the state. On top of the environmental burdens, around 80% of residents of the city’s workforce are considered essential, which means they cannot work from home through the pandemic. Local groups like GreenRoots have been emphasizing the connection between the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts and the city’s environmental burdens.

The Tobin Bridge seen from Chelsea, MA
The Tobin Bridge, which leads into Boston, as seen from Chelsea. Photo: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation via Creative Commons

Even before COVID-19, the connection between a healthy environment and healthy people was central to CLF’s Healthy Neighborhoods work.

Chelsea Flats was the first development to pass the Fund’s HealthScore – as the metrics that assess potential projects and their surrounding neighborhoods are called – and receive funding. It scored high because it offered the chance to improve health and correct historic environmental and health injustices.

“This part of Chelsea hadn’t seen much new housing in 50 years, but it’s very convenient to Boston,” said Mitchell, who is now CEO of Community Builders, Inc. “I wanted to be part of redeveloping this underutilized city neighborhood.”

Another critical aspect of neighborhood health? Whom residents feel a new development is being built for. CLF’s Healthy Neighborhoods Study has found that feeling ownership over community changes matters for overall health and wellbeing. That’s why HealthScore measures community involvement – not just token input but how the project aligns with a community’s vision and incorporates feedback from residents.

“A community-led vision and focus around development has to be the path,” Super Church said. “If city leaders and developers haven’t made any changes to their plan based on community feedback, chances are they haven’t been talking to anyone.”

For example, the City of Chelsea built the Box District Park in 2012 in response to residents’ desire for safe, child-friendly outdoor spaces. The park is now a focal point for the entire neighborhood, including Chelsea Flats.

“We’re working to get our [Healthscore] process closer to the mainstream,” Super Church said. “We want this to become how business gets done: You think about health at every stage of the planning and development process.”

Interior of a Chelsea Flats apartment
The interior of an apartment in Chelsea Flats. Photo: Traggorth Companies

After going through the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund investment process, Mitchell now sits on the Fund’s advisory committee, weighing in on new developments that apply for funding. He was especially excited by the Holmes Beverly development, which turned vacant land near the Beverly Depot commuter rail station into mixed-income housing.

Before the Fund, Mitchell didn’t see as many developers proposing buildings like Chelsea Flats and Holmes Beverly because they weren’t sure how to financially execute them. Ultimately, the Fund isn’t just reducing the financial hurdle once a development is moving forward, it’s also increasing the affordable, healthy developments in the pipeline.

“Formalizing how you review housing in a way that promotes health equity is great,” Mitchell said. “It’s great to see the diversity of people who have found a reasonably priced, great place to live.”

For Didane and his family, their Chelsea Flats apartment has made “a big difference” in their lives.

Before COVID-19 forced him to start working from home last March, his shorter commute meant he had more time with his kids to play soccer, go to neighborhood barbeques, and head out to the beach. Now, the bigger apartment means that working from home is comfortable.

Didane sometimes jokes with his daughter about going back to their old place. Every time, she asks to stay in Chelsea and chants, “New house! New house!”

“It’s a really good chance for my family, especially my kids,” he said. “I’d do whatever it takes for them.”