Leading figures from academia, government and the nonprofit sector shared the stage Monday (Oct. 2) to discuss the challenges faced by Boston’s disadvantaged and to honor the career of Kennedy School Professor Mary Jo Bane who has spent decades advocating for the poor and underprivileged. Bane, the Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management, who recently reached emerita status, has spent more than 50 years working in both academia and government to improve the lives of the disadvantaged.

Mary Jo Bane (second from left) was honored at Harvard Kennedy School during a panel discussion about inequality in Boston.

Boston’s status as a cultural and economic magnet has made it a city particularly out of reach for the city’s poor, said William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard. “As these inner-city neighborhoods gentrify, their resources improve, including the creation of shopping centers, large grocery stores, parks, and upscale restaurants. Moreover, as these neighborhoods become more desirable places to live, the cost of housing, taxes, and rental properties increase, which results in the displacement of many low-income residents who can no longer afford to live there,” Wilson said.  “Unless there are notable rent subsidies or tax abatements for low income property owners, their chances of remaining in cities like Boston are rapidly decreasing.”

President and Executive Director of the Pine Street Inn Lyndia Downie described an urgent need to build housing for members of the workforce in Boston. “Not workforce housing for people in the tech sector, but workforce people who work low wage jobs,” Downie said. “I’m a very big fan of increasing wages, but the truth is at the moment, rents are going to rise higher than wages, so if all we do is stay even through wage increases and we don’t tackle the housing issue, people are not going to be any better off,” she said. “We are very development phobic, especially for poor people.”

In response to the rapid rise in housing costs and demand for subsidized housing, John Barros, chief of economic development for the City of Boston, noted that Boston is building record numbers of affordable units. Of the 22,000 units built in Boston in the last three years, 40 percent have been affordable. “We’re starting to see the right trends,” he said. “Affordability, anti-gentrification is about access, but it’s also about financial stability and improving the financial conditions of residents in Boston.”

David Ellwood, the Isabelle and Scott Black Professor of Political Economy, former dean of the Kennedy School and director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, spoke of a future where low-income individuals have better control of their lives and have greater value in their communities. “Everybody ought to have a chance to grow up in opportunity neighborhoods,” Ellwood said. “We’ve learned how much difference neighborhoods even within the same city can make in terms of life outcomes.” Until we do something about housing, he added, there’s no way people can take advantage of other aspects in life.

The challenges will be better faced if all sectors are working together, concluded Bane. Having had the opportunity to learn and work in the various sectors, Bane said, the plan should be to bring these sectors together. “Let’s figure out how we can do that,” she said.

Panelists also included J. Bryan Hehir, the Parker Gilbert Montgomery Professor of the Practice of Religion and Public Life at the Kennedy School; Sister Margaret A. Leonard, founder and strategic advisor at Project Hope; and Richard Murnane, the Thompson Research Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. “What Can Be Done for Those Left Behind in Wealthy Boston?” was sponsored by the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy.

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