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Shirley Leung

Make middle-class housing a priority

Rein in development costs to make Boston more affordable

It is the year 2033, the waning days of the Walsh administration, marking the end of another remarkable 20-year mayoral reign. If his predecessor, Tom Menino, was the urban mechanic who left us with a new skyline and a flourishing South Boston Waterfront, what will Marty Walsh’s legacy be?

In my mind, that answer should be housing for the middle class.

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Our mayor-elect is uniquely qualified to make Boston a place where working families can live in just about every neighborhood. High home values are a problem that Detroit and other locales would love to have. But when living here becomes out of reach for so many, we’re on a path to becoming a New York, a city of extreme rich and poor.

A healthy supply of middle-class housing would give the city a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the best and brightest workers. But to build it, we need to rein in soaring development and construction costs. And Walsh, as a state legislator and labor leader, is particularly suited to the challenge, having sat across the table from developers trying to hold the line on expenses.

When you tally up the main costs — land, labor, materials, permitting — you can’t, in the downtown area, build housing, say two- or three-bedroom units, that middle-class families can afford. Such homes would sell for about $400,000 to $500,000, making them out of reach for the median family income of roughly $60,000.

Boston has always been an expensive place to live, but things seem out of whack now. Housing prices are rising much faster than incomes, and that’s why some intervention is needed.

So what can Walsh do?

First, address the high cost of labor. Unions do most of the construction work in Boston, and one way to save money is to examine union work rules. As the former head of the Boston Building Trades, which represents unions from electricians to ironworkers, Walsh negotiated overtime rules to reduce costs on a project in Cambridge.

Much more can be done. For example, loosen restrictions on what each trade can do. An electrician runs the wires, but a laborer must carry the box of fixtures. Let’s allow the electrician to do both.

On the campaign trail, Walsh made much of his ability to deal with unions. He should show that he welcomes negotiations between unions and developers to control costs.

Next, the new mayor should discount land for middle-class housing. This one Walsh gets, and he brought it up during a phone call with me after the election. The idea, he said, would be to offer underused city property to developers at costs of “pretty much zero” if they build middle-income housing on it.

Since there’s so little land in Boston, Walsh added, he would support denser buildings downtown. “If there’s an opportunity to build some middle-class high rises — something above, say, 10 stories — I would not be opposed to it,” he said.

Finally, Walsh needs to streamline the development process and add predictability. Boston is famously deliberate in the way it builds, and it can take several years to get a project going.

Time adds money. Just ask John Rosenthal, whose Fenway Center project to be built over the turnpike has had many fits and starts since it was first proposed in 2002. During that time, construction costs alone have shot up by $48 million to $248 million.

The Menino administration did much to make the city livable for those with low incomes, creating policies that set aside affordable housing throughout the city. A Walsh administration can leave its mark by helping the middle class not only stay, but also grow in Boston.

Shirley Leung’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays in the Globe’s business section. She can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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