Solving Dilemmas: Mel King, legendary activist and politician, talks fair housing in Boston

Photo: Zengzheng Wang

Mel King is one of the fiercest and certainly most experienced crusaders in the fight for affordable housing in Boston. Just three years ago, at the age of 85, he was arrested at an eviction protest. In addition to his decades-long career of activism, King boats stints as a state representative, an MIT adjunct and, most recently, the founder of a community technology center and the first black finalist in the mayor’s race.

These days, Boston faces the worst economic inequality in the country, compounded by skyrocketing rental rates and property values.

“The need still exists and appears more critical,” he said about the modern housing scene, which he believes has led to various dilemmas.

These dilemmas can be divided into three types, according to King. First, there are people who can’t afford rent at all due to the high rates. Second, there are those who can pay rent but who don’t earn enough to actually sustain themselves. “These are people who are working and who are having difficulty trying to hold on,” he said.

Third, there are people who are not paid enough attention to, according to King, who own property in the city but can’t keep up with rising values in their neighborhood, which increases their property taxes.

Photo: Zengzheng Wang

In January, the “Boston Globe” reported that the average property tax bill in Boston increased by $15 from last year, which is much lower than the statewide average increase of $206. However, the average tax bill for homeowners in the Hub still totals over $3,500, which makes it difficult for struggling homeowners in the city. And the struggle will worsen: Standard & Poor’s predicts a 24 percent increase in Boston property values by 2020.

On top of all this, King noted, budget cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development means less federal spending on housing assistance and Section 8 vouchers.

King mentioned that a group of advocates—including the Massachusetts Alliance of HUD Tenants and the Boston Homeless Solidarity Committee—recently met with Mayor Marty Walsh to discuss a $5 million housing voucher program for the homeless and low-income individuals.

However, according to King, the mayor said he can’t find the $5 million at the moment. In the past, Housing Chief Shiela Dillon told activists that housing vouchers weren’t a bad idea but not worth pursuing without a broader plan in mind to keep the individuals housed. King disagrees with the city.

“That’s as wrong as it could be,” he said. He noted that while it’s not the only solution, it would benefit 1,000 low-income people who just need a little extra to get by. “They keep waiting for ‘this, that and the other’ and not coming up with the thing that maintains some stability. I think the analysis that comes from cities… looking for some kind of miracle solution is a big mistake.”

King also called for local churches to get more involved in the fight for fair housing, not just in terms of providing support to movements that are raising money to help people in tough times. “We need them to understand that they have to play a role,” said King.

Ultimately, everyone who wants to see fairer housing in the city needs to scrutinize future projects.

Photo: Zengzheng Wang
Photo: Zengzheng Wang

“We need to ask the question, ‘In whose interest?’” he says.

The answer is obvious to King: “The people who have the money.”

Most recently, King butted heads with the BRA, officials and big money developers over the Copley Square development in 2015. Simon Property Group’s $500-million, 52-story tower originally planned to devote 25 percent of its units to affordable housing. It soon lowered that rate to about 14 percent, outraging activists, including King. In the end, after many protests and meetings, the development only added an extra five units to its plans (76 in total), and the BRA board approved them (though the board’s director, Ted Landsmark, was disappointed by the outcome).

It was a tough loss for fair housing advocates.

“We’re not gonna let that happen again,” said King.To keep developers and the BRA in check, King proposes that every development should be approved by not just the BRA but also an elected group representing the district affected by a proposed project.

“That’s the only way, I believe, we can protect the interest of the people who are most [affected],” he said.

The power of the community helped make Tent City a possibility, he pointed out. In 1968, King and others occupied a parking lot that was slated for a market-rate development. The protests paid off, and it eventually became the mixed-income complex that stands today. It’s also the home of King’s most recent venture, the South End Technology Center.

It’s easy for communities to lose their voice in this city. As Christian Science Monitor reported, King’s old neighborhood, New York Streets in the South End, was demolished back in the 50s. The fight, in many ways, is personal for King.

But in the end, it’s love that keeps King going, and the belief that love can motivate communities to do great things.

“We work on the basis of the power of love,” said King. “The love of power builds fences; the power of love opens doors.”

Photo: Zengzheng Wang



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