Minding the Gap: Land Wealth

November 30, 2023

On November 30, the Boston Foundation hosted the first session in a new series of conversations exploring the many dimensions of racial wealth gaps in Greater Boston and beyond - Minding the Gap

The series is inspired by the vision of the Greater Boston Partnership to Close the Racial Wealth Gap, a dynamic and active network of community leaders from diverse backgrounds working together to identify corporate practices, economic levers, and public policies that build wealth in communities of color by increasing home ownership. Series events will focus on different manifestations of the racial wealth gap, including enterprise wealth, community wealth, and personal wealth. For the first virtual gathering – the focus turned to land wealth.

“We see the launch of this event series as an important opportunity to facilitate much-needed conversations about the racial wealth gap with the express goal of identifying how the gap affects our everyday lives, and how addressing the causes and impacts of this gap benefits all of us,” said Boston Foundation President and CEO M. Lee Pelton in welcoming the virtual audience. He contextualized the conversation by reminding viewers of the discriminatory zoning, lending, and other financial and social practices that have denied access to land ownership for people of color for untold generations.

To look more closely at how policies and private investments by individuals and institutions have led to less affordable and accessible land, and to explore programs and policy solutions that have worked to address them, Courtney Brunson, the inaugural Director of the Greater Boston Partnership to Close the Racial Wealth Gap, moderated a conversation with GreenRoots Executive Director Roseann Bongiovanni, MIT Assistant Professor of Urban History, Public Policy and Planning Karilyn Crockett, and CHAPA CEO Rachel Heller.

Click here to watch the webinar


Welcome and Opening Remarks

Lee Pelton, President & CEO, the Boston Foundation

Panel Discussion

Karilyn CrockettAssistant Professor of Urban History, Public Policy & Planning, MIT

Rachel HellerExecutive Director, Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA)

Roseann BongiovanniExecutive Director, GreenRoots

Courtney BrunsonDirector, Greater Boston Partnership to Close the Racial Wealth Gap (Moderator)

Each panelist addressed the question, “What does land wealth mean in your respective field?” For Bongiovanni, running an environmental justice organization in Chelsea, Mass., “Land wealth really means land sovereignty, and that means community members controlling the land in their own neighborhoods and backyards.” From a housing perspective, said Heller, “Land wealth is the primary way that people in our nation build wealth, and not only has it been taken from people at so many points in history, land has been used also to separate people by race and by class.” Working within a university planning department and teaching history, Crockett had to “call out the fact that we exist in a very conflicted relationship to land in this country and have struggled for hundreds of years with the idea of land as a commodity—land as something that we possess, we dominate, and we control. … I sit here as the fifth generation removed from slavery from my family, and so the reality of shadow slavery, the reality of the ownership not just of land, but of bodies, as the basis of the U.S. economy [sharpens the focus on that] conflicted relationship…. I think we have to start with the idea that wealth is about our knowledge as well.”

These diverse and overlapping perspectives were brought to bear on topics of infrastructure development, high housing costs, the history of displacement dating back to the ancestral inhabitants of Massachusetts—“our whole history is baked in at that moment that we were taking land and dividing people,” noted Heller—as well as recent changes that buck the trends of wealth consolidation for some and displacement for others.

Those include state supported programs like Commonwealth Builders for community development and proven approaches like MassDreams for down payment assistance, and Housing Navigator to share information on affordable housing, as well as committing to instill the responsibility to affirmatively further fair housing into regional zoning. 

But larger philosophical and practical questions remain when it comes to reckoning for the harm done. Whether that harm is the clearing of Boston’s multicultural West End or the taking of Native American land or anything else over the last 400 years, Crockett said, “It is important to think about how to quantify those damages and how to figure out through policy and through investments how we can make amends.”

All agreed that continuing to talk about the issues and their histories was key to making progress. Progress could include changing processes to allow for broader participation in decision-making about land, and indeed changing the make-up of boards and organizations that engage in the decision-making. Progress could be local government hiring a chief equity officer or your own organization analyzing whether its budget upholds its stated values. 

Before closing with audience questions, Brunson asked each panelist for a brief reply to the question, “What would equitable land use, or effectively distributed land wealth look like to you?” Bongiovanni led with the “incredible” idea of having all land owned by a community land trust so that “community members would have much more land sovereignty and land wouldn’t go to private investors who are building what they want and then leaving at the end of the day.” Crockett felt “strongly that we have enough money. We have enough space…. We can make more housing; we can and we must. We can make housing more affordable [with] more opportunities to own housing [and] have more rental housing. We need to do that. We have to start with the idea that there’s enough.” To which Heller added, “It’s one thing to have affordable options. It’s a whole other thing to actually be welcoming and inclusive. And to think about the kinds of ecosystem we’re creating, whether that’s public processes where people feel welcome, or it’s the kind of community you have in your school, and people feel like they can participate. So I think it means embracing [that] we have enough to share, and that it actually is good for all of us to do so.”