A couple months after the Pawtucket Red Sox announced they would be moving to downtown Worcester, Yvette Dyson became worried.

For the first time, a for-profit developer had out-bid Dyson on a property her organization was trying to buy for an affordable housing project, less than a mile from the proposed multi-million-dollar ballpark development. The company offered hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the building’s appraised value. Dyson was shocked.

“That was sort of the first feel of, ‘Oh my god, they’re coming,’” said Dyson, a local affordable housing advocate.

Glitzy new buildings that are a stone’s throw from low-income neighborhoods in Worcester are spurring new development and construction, but many are anxious about the affordability of housing for low-income residents in those neighborhoods. Advocates for affordable housing are working to secure housing opportunities for the city's poorest residents before property gets too expensive.

Dyson is the director of Worcester Common Ground, a community development corporation focused on affordable housing in the Piedmont neighborhood — a low-income, mostly non-white area of Worcester. The organization manages and rents out 145 units to low- and moderate-income residents, and they refurbish and sell properties to new homeowners at subsidized prices.

Dyson said in the 30 years her organization has been operating, most dilapidated buildings and vacant lots have been affordable to them. But the increase in interest from outside developers is driving prices up.

“If people start to think that this is a good neighborhood to invest in, and if we have the speculative buyers coming in, and then jack the rents up, we're going to start moving out the people who really make up this neighborhood,” said Dyson. “And that's the unnerving part of it. Like, who knows how quickly that’s going to happen?”

The new ballpark is just one piece of a longer-term development trajectory in Worcester that is often referred to by city officials as the “Worcester Renaissance.” Changes include transformed downtown neighborhoods — notably, the Canal District — as well as a steady rise in home values throughout the city.

The unnerving part for Dyson is that throughout Worcester, residents struggle to afford housing as it is. Around a third of homeowners and half of renters in the city spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, which classifies them as "cost-burdened," according to data compiled by the Worcester Affordable Housing Coalition.

And housing prices keep going up. Over the past decade in Worcester, the median price of two and three-family homes has more than doubled, and the median price of a single-family home has increased around 40 percent, according to data provided by the Warren Group, a New England real estate industry research group. Similarly, the median price of a condo has increased by nearly 70 percent in the past 10 years.

But as housing costs increase, income levels have stayed relatively flat in the city, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dyson said her organization wants properties in the neighborhood to be affordable to low-income people. For a family of four, that would mean a combined income of 30 to 60 percent of Worcester's $61,000 area median income. To ensure affordability into the future, the houses sold to first-time home buyers by Worcester Common Ground are part of a Community Land Trust, a deed restriction that says the house has to remain affordable in perpetuity, no matter how many times it’s bought or sold.

“So at least we know what we build will always remain affordable,” Dyson said. “What happens around us, I'm not sure.”

Yvette Dyson, Worcester Common Ground
Affordable housing is a juggling act for Yvette Dyson, director of Worcester Common Ground. Her team manages over 100 rental properties and numerous community parks and gardens, writes grants for new funding and oversees multi-million dollar construction projects.
Anna Kusmer WGBH News

Community Land Trusts are growing in popularity as an affordable housing tool around the country, said Chris Herbert, director of the Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies. Herbert said a national trend of people moving back to cities and driving up prices — like what’s happening in Worcester — is putting pressure on long standing neighborhoods whose residents want to keep living there.

“The land trust is a way for people to be able to maintain affordability in the face of rising prices both now and over time,” said Herbert. “There’s a lot of interest in the widespread process of gentrification that we’re seeing in many places across the country. It’s leading people to consider land trusts to build in more permanent affordability.”

Worcester Common Ground has sold 25 properties within their land trust, mostly in the form of triple-deckers — 75 units in total. They’re now putting the final touches on a small house built on a vacant lot which will be part of the trust. Dyson said although they have been steadily acquiring properties and adding them to the trust for decades, they’re feeling increased pressure to collect more before getting priced out.

But the process is time intensive. Her organization only has four full-time employees, and there is a lot of red tape and grant applications that slow the process down and limit what they’re able to buy. She said capital is always an issue, and they work with a lot of groups, piecing funding together from a lot of different sources.

“We're in that planning stage, but we're also in the trenches of getting stuff done,” said Dyson. “It is a race against time. ... We're somewhat in a crisis in terms of capturing these properties now before they go.”

Dyson said she currently has her eye on eight vacant properties in the neighborhood, both lots and abandoned homes, that she would like to acquire if she can cobble together the funds, convince the owners to sell and out-bid any competitors.

But that competition is getting harder — in part because the city is actively encouraging developers to go there. Parts of the Piedmont neighborhood are also designated as one of Worcester’s “Opportunity Zones,” where developers have access to federal tax incentives if they invest there.

The pressure Dyson is feeling sounds familiar to Tony Hernandez, who runs the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s Community Land Trust in Boston. Established in 1989, it’s one of the nation’s largest and most famous community land trusts, containing 95 units in the Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. He refers to his neighborhood’s land trust as a “protective bubble” of affordability in a sea of pricey real estate.

Hernandez said Dudley acquired a lot of its properties as vacant lots when the neighborhood was less attractive to speculative developers in the late 1980s. In the intervening years, prices have shot up in Boston, said Hernandez, and it’s now much harder to add properties to the portfolio. He said if prices are relatively cheap near a city, land trusts should buy as much as possible while they can still afford it.

“There's no better time than the present,” Hernandez said. “Don’t think that it’s going to sit like that forever.”

Many Worcester neighborhoods have their own community development corporation focusing on affordable housing and home ownership — and each one has their own battle with rising costs and trying to avoid displacement.

The Oak Hill CDC holds home buyer workshops and counseling to help low- and moderate-income residents get mortgages and buy homes for the first time. Director Mullen Sawyer said he’s happy the ballpark is coming to Worcester — he expects it will bring millions of dollars worth of investment to formally neglected parts of town — but there are trade-offs.

“[The ball park] has totally changed the economic paradigm,” Sawyer said. “Now we're in danger of gentrification. So you have to be careful what you wish for." He said some of the most neglected neighborhoods near the ball park have seen drastic improvements in a very short time.

Sawyer thinks home ownership is the best way to avoid displacement. But for those who can’t afford to buy now, it will only get more difficult with time.

“We have the fastest growing economics for housing in the state right now,” he said. “So you don't have much time to think about it or you will be priced out.”

The advantage of the land trust model is that it makes home ownership possible for residents for whom a standard mortgage is financially out of reach, and going through the land trust could be their only shot. On the flip side, the trust limits how much a home's price can appreciate, which limits the profit a homeowner can get when selling.

Dyson said her organization and other CDCs get some funding help from the city, but she would like more government support for affordable housing projects in the lower-income neighborhoods.

This year, the city gave Worcester Common Ground nearly $2 million in Housing and Urban Development funding for three large-scale affordable housing projects. Dyson said this funding was critical because it allowed her to successfully apply for tens of millions more from the state.

However, Dyson said a lack of available capital is one of the biggest bottlenecks for her organization, and she thinks the city government should prioritize neighborhood CDCs more when they allocate affordable housing funding, rather than spending as much money on downtown development.

“They are helpful in some ways, but they don’t understand the need that’s happening in a critical time in some Worcester neighborhoods,” said Dyson. “We CDCs take our neighborhoods very seriously.”

For-profit developers received one third of Worcester’s 2019 HUD affordable housing funding, totaling around $4.5 million, according to James Brooks, the director of Housing Development in Worcester.

Brooks said Worcester Common Ground and other CDCs are crucial for affordable housing projects in the city, referring to them as "the heartbeat of the neighborhoods.”

“We feel we really are supporting them,” Brooks said. "CDCs and non-profits have received multiple millions of dollars over the last five year period. There has been and there will continue to be support for their projects throughout the neighborhoods.”

Dyson said she hopes people living in her neighborhood will be able to afford to go to baseball games once the park opens, and that the windfall from the new development will benefit the neighborhood — not just drive up prices and drive people away.

“Everyone needs a place to hang their hat, regardless of your income,” said Dyson. “When this organization was developed, the people who were at the forefront of it were concerned about housing for people for years to come.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Worcester’s "Opportunity Zones." The zones are tax incentives that lower the federal taxes paid by developers.