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Main Spotlight: Closing the Wealth Gap in Boston - A Playbook for Investing in Economic Equity


January 4, 2023 | Main Spotlight: Closing the Wealth Gap – Boston's Playbook for Investing in Economic Equity | By: City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion, Office of Supplier Diversity, Office of Housing, and Office of Financial Empowerment |

City of Boston staff and Councilor Coletta visiting Tutti Frutti, a small business specializing in Peruvian cuisine, during the East Boston Business Walk. Courtesy: TJ Flaherty.

The City of Boston Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion (OEOI) and Boston Main Streets are incredibly excited to co-host the 2023 Main Street Now Conference alongside Main Street America in Boston, Massachusetts, from March 27-29. Get to know us and our city of Main Streets through this special blog series! Keep reading to learn more about Boston’s efforts to invest in economic equity and stay tuned for featured articles from our team in the coming months.

Conference registration is open, with early bird rates available through February 5. Check out the conference website and follow the conference's Facebook and Twitter accounts for the latest updates.

In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released its Color of Wealth in Boston report, which highlights the disparities that exist in our City. The headline? Non-White households hold only a fraction of the net worth of White households. White households have a median wealth of $247,000, while Black households have a median net worth of $8.

The Color of Wealth report merely serves as a reminder of what our community has known for decades – the marginalized communities in the City of Boston have not been granted equal access to build generational wealth, and in many cases their lack of opportunity is intentional. We are at a unique time in Boston’s history and the work that Mayor Michelle Wu’s Administration is focused on is instrumental in ensuring that we will not be having these same conversations fifty years from now. Mayor Wu has made it a priority of her administration to focus on equity and close the wealth gap.

So what are we doing to change this? The City of Boston is taking bold and creative steps to build and maintain small businesses throughout our neighborhoods, invest in our 20 commercial corridor Main Streets districts, build more affordable housing, rethink how we leverage City contracting and procurement to promote equity, and provide financial literacy tools for Boston residents.

Investing in Small Businesses and Neighborhood Main Streets

In 2022, we hit the ground running under the new Wu Administration and prioritized the need to implement programs through the lens of equity, with the ultimate goal of supporting each and every resident of our City. In October, the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Inclusion (OEOI) launched a new Legacy Business Program designed to recognize and celebrate the longstanding businesses in our neighborhoods that have served as cultural anchors and repositories of community traditions for decades. The program provides grants and technical assistance to legacy businesses to ensure that they can avoid displacement, grow their influence, keep residents employed, and continue to enrich the cultural vibrancy of the City of Boston.

Most recently, OEOI launched the S.P.A.C.E. Grant Program, which aims to bring people back to commercial districts, fill vacant spaces, and to revitalize our local economy by helping small business owners secure new storefront space or expand to a space by subsidizing the costs associated with operating expenses.

In addition to the individual programs that our Cabinet introduced throughout the year, we are committed to getting “City Hall out of City Hall” by visiting our small businesses in each of our Main Streets districts. Every week we went on a “business walk” in one of our Main Streets districts. Through conversations with business owners and community members, we use their feedback to directly inform our work, and do everything possible to spur economic growth in their neighborhoods. By and large, our marginalized communities live and operate outside of the downtown districts, so we are prioritizing the need to make each Main Streets district a destination for residents and tourists alike.

Equity in City Contracting and Procurement

As a municipality, the City of Boston utilizes contracts to buy goods and services that range from office supplies to snow removal, advertising campaigns for our programs, and services for residents. Last year, in order to promote equity and inclusion in the City of Boston’s contracting and procurement processes, Mayor Wu signed an ordinance to establish the first ever Sheltered Market Program (SMP) in the City of Boston and the state of Massachusetts.

The Sheltered Market Program is unique because it allows the City to target specific procurements to minority- and women-owned businesses that have been underutilized in the past, especially those identified as demonstrating a “substantial disparity” in the City’s 2021 Disparity Study. These businesses must be certified through the City or State as a minority, woman, Veteran, or small and locally-owned business to compete for SMP contracts.

The goal is to provide bidding opportunities for businesses that are often excluded from government contracts and help build the capacity of small, local, diverse businesses so that they can submit bids for larger government contracts in the future.

Affordable Housing

One of the key factors driving the wealth disparity in the Color of Wealth report is home ownership. Boston has an overall homeownership rate of 35 percent, considerably less than the statewide homeownership rate of 62 percent. Additionally, homeownership rates differ significantly by race and ethnicity, as 44 percent of Boston’s White households are homeowners, compared to 31 percent of Black or African American households, 30 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander households, and 17 percent of Hispanic or Latinx households.

Mayor Wu’s Administration sees creating affordable housing and pathways to homeownership in Boston as a way to create equity. In April 2022, Mayor Wu announced a significant investment in creating homeownership opportunities by directing $60 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds and $46 million of City funds over three years to support the development of income-restricted housing for eligible Boston residents and financial assistance programs to help residents in buying homes. Through the Mayor’s Office of Housing (MOH), the City will make 150 parcels of land available to developers to build income-restricted homeownership opportunities and will be providing grants that will deliver lower mortgage interest rates and up to $50,000 in direct assistance, including down payment and closing cost assistance, to income-eligible, first-time homebuyers.

The proposed investments in homeownership are part of the Mayor’s commitment to address housing affordability and stability through the operating budget, the Capital budget, and federal recovery funds to build and acquire new affordable units, upgrade public housing, expand housing stability services, and expand an existing voucher program.

In addition to building new homes, MOH will fund three financial assistance programs that will aid households looking to purchase a home in Boston. The Boston Home Center (BHC) First Time Homebuyer program, the Saving Toward Affordable Sustainable Homeownership (STASH) program, and the ONE+Boston program.

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy is a critical component to addressing and solving the wealth disparities in Boston. The Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) seeks to make this City a place where all residents can access opportunities and resources critical for individual, family, and community wealth building, and an improved quality of life. Through OFE and its partners, Boston has developed a series of new programs in recent years that address building credit, tax preparation, financial education, and building savings.

Through our Boston Builds Credit program, residents are encouraged to attend free workshops at neighborhood locations to help individuals learn the rules and implications of credit building. The Boston Tax Help Coalition allows residents to keep more of their earned income tax time by avoiding tax preparation and other fees charged by paid tax preparers while gaining access to free financial education and other services.

Lastly, many households in Boston do not have a checking or savings account and rely on costly check-cashing and other alternative financial services. Our Bank on Boston program helps residents to open a safe, affordable, and non-predatory checking or savings account. These programs all improve the financial wellbeing of our residents, particularly our marginalized communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about the role that Main Street programs and local governments play in fostering community wealth building and shared prosperity, make sure to check out the 2023 Main Street Now Conference, in Boston, Massachusetts from March 27-29. There you will find ample opportunities to explore this topic through education sessions, mobile workshops, and networking. Registration is now open! Preview the agenda, start planning your visit, and register here >

City of Boston Office of Economic Opportunity & Inclusion
Boston Main Streets

Community Heart & Soul, a Main Street America Allied Member, is this quarter's Main Spotlight advertiser. For more information about what they do to support Main Street organizations, click here.