Opinion Analysis: Inclusive Economies come from Including People
EOHED MetroWest Engagement Session
On the morning of June 25th, Framingham State University hosted the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development’s (EOHED) final Engagement Session. This nine-stop, 1,200-participant tour is an early step in developing the Office’s four-year state economic development plan which will be presented to the Baker Administration at the end of the year. Meetings across the state have convened commercial, municipal, and community leaders to collect on-the-ground feedback about what is broadly needed to advance the state’s economy and all those who engage with it.
The event opened with a welcome from Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer, as well as EOHED Secretary Kennealy and Senate President Spilka. From there, attendees launched into one of six roundtable discussions, facilitated by officials from the Office, on topics including “Housing” and “Innovation & Start-Ups.” During these two rounds of dialogues, local representatives voiced their priorities and concerns and exchanged targeted ideas with facilitators.
Around the “Neighborhood and Community Development” table, attendees discussed the exasperation of being caught between residents who are priced out of their area’s home markets, as is the case in Ashland, and the resistance that springs up at the mention of affordable housing, such as in Foxborough. Participants also discussed the implications of hosting many stops along the Worcester-Framingham Commuter Rail Line. Some expressed frustration over the directional bias in the rail schedules towards Boston commuters at the expense of a more regionally-networked system. Others thought about how to leverage their location through commuter lots, like in Ashland, or through new transit-oriented housing, as Framingham is implementing with 1,500 units under construction.
During the later session on “Access to Jobs & Workforce Development,” attendees continued to discuss the multi-dimensional nature of their communities’ workforce needs. Housing was again raised as a problem, particularly the stagnation of Baby Boomers who have not yet transitioned out of their single-family homes, as well as the role of varied town-by-town property values to breed educational inequities. The importance of cultivating an educated workforce through strong educational opportunities, starting in early childhood and spanning to accessible college options, resonated with many participants, especially Northborough representatives who advocated for their early college programs. The baseline needs of workers for transportation and childcare were common themes emphasized by attendees from the South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) in Framingham and Devens.
MetroWest is not home to any of the Commonwealth’s Gateway Cities, however, the overall priorities of attendees resonates with the kinds of critical steps the Economic Development Planning Council and EOHED Officials could take to ensure our economy serves everyone who lives and works across the state. For the state’s Gateway Cities especially, housing affordability and the civil rights of the current and potential immigrant workforce are central to a healthy and inclusive economic future.
The roots of MetroWest’s housing conflicts seem to extend state-wide. The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2019 report, “Out of Reach”, shows that a MA resident looking to rent a 2-bedroom apartment would need to make $33.81 per hour to avoid being classified as rent-burdened, whereas the state’s average wage for a renter is $20.72. Research such as Dain’s study through the MA Smart Growth Alliance on multi-family housing feasibility in MetroWest or MassINC’s work on increasing transit-accessible housing in the state’s Gateway Cities focus especially on constructing more affordable housing supply. Is it possible, however, that a bias towards building for affordability could mean neglecting efforts to preserve and promote “naturally occurring” affordable units that the state’s residents already call home? In charting a future course of action, this economic development plan should recognize the diversity of housing situations and needs that exist among the state’s working-class and otherwise rent-burdened households to elevate an equally varied set of tools to combat the unaffordability crunch on all fronts.Participants at the event raised concerns that highlighted policies in support of the state’s marginalized workers, such as expecting parents, unemployed workers, and those recovering from opioid addiction. These policies and concerns resonate with the need to better establish the rights and recognize the economic potential of Gateway Cities’ immigrant communities. According to a 2016 report by New American Economy, 21% of entrepreneurs in the state are immigrants, employing 134,477 workers. Even as immigrants represent an economic force (and in many cases a space of unsupported potential), many sectors of the state’s immigrant communities are under constant and mounting threats, especially under the current administration. Economic development will flow from an expansion of immigrant rights, and using immigration as an orientation point in the design of the state’s economic development plan would especially elevate the economies and collective quality of life in Gateway Cities.
As Senator Spilka pointed out in her opening remarks, it is hard to know at first how to invoke the type of economic change that many of our state’s residents need. Like she suggests, however, the first step is as simple as listening. If we take stock of how life is playing out on the streets and in the homes of MetroWest’s and our Gateway Cities’ residents, observation shows that more intentional, equity-oriented policy efforts around housing affordability and immigrant rights could have a multiplying effect on the Bay State’s economy. As the Economic Development Planning Council and others present their recommendations to the Governor, recognizing that economies are about people first will illuminate a path towards inclusive economic development that has been here all along.