Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker faced a 2018 electorate unanimously fixated on one issue: the housing crisis.
And the cries for ample and affordable housing are getting louder, with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh advocating for middle-class housing to the 700 attendees of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
But do they have support from developers, businesses, and zoning commissions to establish a permanent home for inclusivity and affordability in the heart of Boston?
THE MAIN CHALLENGES
The Boston housing crisis is actually two-pronged; the city is dealing simultaneously with a shortage of all housing, as well as of affordable housing.
In the last 30 years, Massachusetts has developed half the housing it was boldly developing from the 1960’s to the 80’s.
To add to the crunch, a shift in patterns has more baby boomers choosing to stay in their suburban homes rather than downsizing, exacerbating the housing shortage, particularly for millennials looking to buy homes and start families.
The third most expensive city in the country has prospective home buyers battling it out for the same properties, too often losing to cash-in-hand investors, propelling prices to unprecedented highs.
Do we see a pattern yet?
To fully account for the severity of the moment, Boston must also account for its once-again rising gentrification and segregation.
Take the Seaport District for instance; as outside investors and large companies found their homes and headquarters in Boston’s Innovation District, development expanded at a rapid pace, with a focus on serving new commercial tenants.
Consequently, the district failed to plan and deliver a neighborhood school, library, police or fire department to call its own.
This type of result renders “a persistently high level of racial segregation” and “hyper-segregation” for black Boston residents, as affirmed on the Greater Boston Housing Report Card.
LOOKING AT PAST WINS
Not all hope is lost.
A search for inclusive, affordable, and cost-effective housing solutions shows sustainability is often a principal component of housing crisis success stories.
Take the “learning lab,” as it’s called by its developers, the Rose.
A 90-unit mixed-income development, the Rose delivers on unprecedented commitment to green design principles and sees sustainability as a long-term cost-saver.
Featuring locally sourced and chemical-free building materials, a community garden, solar panel-ready roofs, and a tight building envelope (the units are 75 percent more energy efficient than those in traditional buildings), the Rose found a happy medium to please investors seeking returns, and the local community eager to keep its roots and build for the next generations.
The Boston area has seen its own lift in the East Boston and Revere areas immediately after bringing the MBTA Blue Line into these neighborhoods.
Real estate investment followed the MBTA, and new renters have quickly settled, drawn to the comparative bargains, and the ability to reach Downtown in a matter of minutes.
So, what else can Boston do?
DIALING IN ON SOLUTIONS
Two large initiatives from the Governor’s office could be promising.
First, the proposed Housing Choice Initiative bill, which heeds the calls for making zoning rules less restrictive to new housing developments.
If passed, the bill would enable towns and cities to adopt housing zoning rules with a simple majority vote, as opposed to the current requirement of a two-thirds super-majority.
To put things in perspective, if this bill had been passed in 2016, Massachusetts would’ve passed 22 additional proposed changes to housing development-related zoning laws, possibly alleviating the problem of slow housing production.
Backing this initiative is The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Boston, a report released last June by researcher and author Amy Dain.
In it, Dain makes the case for:
- Zoning more land for multifamily housing, allowing for increased density
- Reforming the approval process for flexibility and predictability
- Allowing more housing in centers (and near transit) and plan connected growth nodes on the edges
- Allowing multifamily housing next to mixed-use hubs
“Right now, Greater Boston is in urgent need of a pro-growth agenda that thinks about how we add hundreds of thousands of new dwelling units to the region in a way that improves the quality of life for the people who live here,” says Dain.
“My main conclusion is that we do not have the zoning in place to meet demand for housing or to build it in a way that is worthy of Greater Boston’s greatness.”
Additionally, and perhaps more aggressively, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made headlines last week with the announcement of the $500 million pledge (to be spent over the course of five years) allocated exclusively for building affordable housing in the city.
There can be no solution for the Boston housing crisis without continued mindful and open-minded discussion.
Current residents, the next generations, business communities, and real estate investors alike—each party is a necessary element to sustained progress for Boston, and each party’s concerns must be addressed.
As Thomas Callahan, executive director of Mass Affordable Housing Alliance put it, “We need to have a multiple-pronged approach.”
By continuing to enlist the creative solutions of residents, developers, public resources, and the business community, and coupling them with the purposeful power of its legislative body, Boston seems to be matching intention with action to resolve its housing crisis.