Thirteen miles west of downtown Boston, the city of Waltham is the gateway to the 39 communities that make up MetroWest.
“Waltham is considered an affluent community,” said Jeffrey Bailey, who’s in charge of social services for the Salvation Army in Massachusetts.
Like the rest of MetroWest, Waltham is booming. Moody Street, the main commercial strip, has a lively mix of restaurants and shops. Bailey has seen new apartment and condominium complexes go up a short walk from the Salvation Army’s Waltham building. He’s also seen an increase in people struggling to keep up with basic needs, including rent and food. A decade ago, he said, about 20 people a day would show up for a free midday meal. Now that number has more than doubled.
“Within a three-block radius, this is our people”, said Bailey. “These are the ones who don’t have a lot of money, who are living together in housing and are food insecure. If you go seven streets over, you might see a different picture.”
With its mix of prosperity and signs of growing poverty, Waltham reflects a larger trend documented in a new report from the Foundation for MetroWest. Along with strong schools and rising incomes, the reports finds that since 2000, the poverty rate across MetroWest’s 39 communities has gone up. Waltham has the highest rate at 11 percent.
“There are more people who once upon a time would give us funds and they would help us — and now they’re coming to us for services,” said Bailey.
On the heels of the MetroWest report, the Boston Globe released an analysis of data from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue indicating the numbers of millionaires is on the rise. It indicated some of the state’s biggest earners live in MetroWest.
"The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. A lot of people are leaving the middle class. A few of them are going up to higher income levels and a larger number are going down to lower income levels,” said Marc Draisen, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), a state agency monitoring regional growth. That deepening divide isn’t unique to Boston’s Metro West, he said, it’s happening across the state and the country.
“Of course, the high cost of housing is tending to increase poverty. But we also see that people who might have had middle class or working class jobs 20 years ago are now on part time jobs, earning lower wages, maybe not having benefits anymore,” he said. “And those folks are having real difficulty buying into or renting into the housing market.”
One quarter of renters across Massachusetts, he said, spend half their income on housing. It’s expensive because the housing supply hasn’t kept up with the population growth. But over-burdened renters shouldn’t be the only ones worried. Out-of-reach housing prices, said Draisen, are likely to hurt the thing that’s driving this economy: a strong job market.
“The most important thing that any employer wants is highly qualified workers near their place of business,” said Draisen. “And, increasingly, we realize that employers are a little more reluctant to relocate here than they were five, ten years ago, because they’re not sure that their employees are going to be able to afford to live near the place where they work.”
At a time when so much new housing is going up, Draisen is advocating for building more housing that low and middle income earners can afford.