Massachusetts property crisis

Crystal posts a link to a Boston Globe story about property prices in Massachusetts.

Houses here cost so much because there are too few of them for all the people who have been drawn to Boston because it’s such a great place for great minds to do great things. But that reputation, which has kept Boston competitive all these years, is beginning to buckle under the weight of absurd home prices. Even in a recession, Boston’s world-renowned hospitals, higher-education institutions, and biotech firms admit they are seeing their job offers turned down like never before, largely because of housing costs.

[...]

The Census Bureau says Cambridge is the city with the highest percentage of $1-million- plus single-family homes in the country. But this is a surprisingly recent phenomenon. Beaty has to go back only as far as 1986 to find Cambridge’s first million-dollar sale.

It’s the beginning of the end for Davis Square. Diesel only just survived being priced out, and there now appear to be two swanky upscale cocktail bars opening at once, each complete with chic frosted glass windows and ultra-modern designer furniture.

Meanwhile in Harvard Square, it’s so bad that the clothing chain stores like Abercrombie and Fitch are being priced out and replaced by boutiques selling Swiss watches.

An insightful comment from Robert Blatman, an obstetrician quoted in the Globe article:

“The crazy thing is, if I can’t afford to live in these areas, what about the teachers and the firemen? It really worries me that, at some point, this has to erode the quality of life that made the real estate around here so desirable in the first place.”

And that’s the problem. It’s not sustainable. As people making normal wages leave the state (10,000 a year on average), their homes go to developers and owner-speculators, not to another normal family. Ordinary businesses can’t get staff, because the only people within an hour’s commute who can survive on normal wages are the few still living with their parents. Which, in turn, means that everything from groceries to medical bills to utility bills gets jacked up 40% or more to compensate for the increased overheads.

So sooner or later, people start to look at their crummy 2 bedroom rented apartment with the rattling windows and chronic dust bunny infestation, and look at their bills, and then look at other parts of the country…and that’s why we’re leaving. Even if we had a million bucks, we wouldn’t be spending it to get a 2 bedroom house here. Cambridge is nice, but it’s not that nice.

Furthermore, it’s plain that the local powers-that-be aren’t going to do anything about the problem. If they’re lucky, the Boston metro area will turn into another Manhattan. If they’re unlucky, there will be a big crash. I don’t want to be around for either of those scenarios.

Austin thoughts

We spent a week in the city, staying with the gracious Gavin. Here are some ways in which Austin is a better place than Cambridge/Somerville:

  • People are friendly.

    Example: We were looking at some new houses, and suddenly found ourselves talking to one of the builders—a native Texan—about how he got into the trade after his time in the military, how they constructed the houses, why they did things the way they did, trade-offs of different kinds of construction, and so on. He not only told us how to get in touch with the sales agent, he offered to call her up on the office phone, right there and then, so we could talk to her. I could be wrong, but I suspect this kind of behavior is not typical of New England construction workers.

    If you’ve lived all your life in New England—or the southern part of the original one—you might not have experienced friendliness. In which case, you should try it, you might like it.

  • Drivers are polite. We did all the usual “not from around here” things—we made last minute direction changes, paused to think at green traffic lights, and so on. In spite of this, I don’t recall hearing a single car horn directed at us.

    On the other hand, the taxi driver who took us home from Logan paused for literally under a second after a light went green, and the masshole behind felt the need to lay on the horn.

  • Groceries are cheap. Food appears to cost around 60% of what it does in Cambridge. The online cost of living comparators had told me this, but I didn’t believe it until I actually saw it for myself. This is even true of fancy imported foreign goods, like the can of Irn Bru I bought.

  • Houses are cheap. We can afford one. In fact, with our projected budget we’ll have a wide choice. We won’t have to live miles from civilization either.

  • It’s not Generica. The first morning, we walked off in search of coffee. We’d gone several blocks when I suddenly got that Twilight Zone feeling… Sure enough, I checked, and we hadn’t passed a single chain store. No Starbucks, no GAP, no Borders. Just lots of locally owned independent stores.

    There’s a “Keep Austin Weird” campaign which encourages people to buy from local stores. What’s astonishing is that it appears to be working. Yes, you can find chains if you head out to the strip malls in suburbia, but the city itself fails to be the same as every other American city.

  • On a related note, there are lots of cool coffee shops. Sure, Davis Square has Diesel and the Someday, and there’s that new place in Union Square, but Austin has more funky and unique coffee houses than I could keep count of.

  • Cheap Tex-Mex.

  • There’s an amazing supermarket. I was surprised to find a local supermarket listed in the tourist guide. Then we went there, and I understood why. I had no idea there were that many varieties of olives. Poor sheltered fool that I am, I thought there were just black and green ones, and maybe a third kind called plum. But no, they have two entire salad bars of just olives.

  • Streets are labeled. Almost always at both ends, too. Whereas the whole street sign thing is a new-fangled invention which Boston folk view with great suspicion.

  • There are lizards everywhere. Little green ones. They scamper along the deck and try to look inconspicuous in bushes.

  • It rarely dips below freezing. sara thinks that’s freakish and wrong, but I think it’s a good thing and I’m the one writing this.

Now for the bad things:

  • Drivers are polite…but many are incompetent.

    We were warned, and yes it’s true—many Texans seem to feel that learning to operate a vehicle safely is one of those things they can put off for a later date.

  • It gets really hot in summer. Though there’s still some controversy over whether it’s even as bad as Minneapolis.

  • We’ll need a car. And I’ll have to learn to drive. Hopefully not like a Texan.

So on the whole, the benefits seem to far outweigh the negatives.

Found in Davis Square

So as I walked through Davis Square today, I looked down and noticed a small ziplock bag filled with powder. On closer look, the crystals appeared to be slightly larger than regular sugar, perhaps similar in size to Demerara brown sugar. The color was off-white, with a touch of yellow, maybe the merest hint of brown. The bag was about 6cm by 4cm and packed fairly full.

I considered what it might be. None of the innocent possibilities seemed likely. It was too light in color to be brown sugar, and too yellow to be regular bleached sugar. Silica gel? Maybe, but who keeps silica gel in a transparent plastic ziplock bag?

OK, I thought, so suppose it’s not something innocent. Cocaine is fine white powder, so that’s not it. Crack comes in rocks, so probably not that either. Overall, and speaking strictly as a non-expert, I guessed the most likely possibilities were heroin or crystal meth. It seemed like rather a lot of powder to be heroin, but since my entire knowledge of typical dosages of heroin is taken from having watched Trainspotting once, I could be hopelessly wrong. I learned quite a lot about the chemistry of illegal drugs at school, but they didn’t really go into much detail about how to recognize and evaluate the quality of a sample.

I considered what, if anything, I should do. Obviously the law abiding thing to do would be to pick it up and hand it in at the local police station. Wait, did I say “law abiding”? I meant fucking stupid. Yeah, I’m going to walk into Somerville PD with a plastic bag full of something I think might be crystal meth.

In other words, thanks to the War on Drugs, I did nothing. I quietly went on my merry way. And then I thought about a recent cartoon by Ted Rall, about a similar situation and the War on Terrorism.

So anyhow… if you dropped your baggie of crystal meth in Davis Square, it might still be outside the Somerville Theater.

Crystal Evans

Met Crystal in Davis Square. Gave her some spare glove/mittens and a polarfleece hood. The gloves were great, but they made my wrists itch, and the hood just didn’t work for me somehow.

We sat in the Someday and chatted. She’s very talkative, and has quite the story to tell.