BUILDING TOWARD A SOLUTION
Boston’s housing czar is crafting a plan to fix the city’s affordability crisis.
If Boston is going to solve its housing puzzle, Sheila Dillon will be key to putting the pieces together.
A frank-talking policy wonk with nearly a quarter century of experience on Boston’s community development scene, Dillon is as comfortable talking about the intricacies of housing finance as she is working a neighborhood meeting. And as Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s housing czar, she’s on the front lines of one of the city’s biggest challenges: making sure the epic building boom doesn’t leave average Bostonians behind.
It’s a tough job.
In the last year, Dillon has led the revamp of affordable housing requirements for new development, prodded unions to craft lower wage rates on apartment buildings, and pushed the city’s universities to build more student housing in the hopes it will free up triple-deckers for working families. Up next, she’s launching the Office of Housing Stability, a bid to help low-income renters facing eviction find new homes. “No one thing is going to solve this,” she says. “We’re taking every possible angle.”
And in a city where builders, housing advocates, and neighborhood groups rarely see eye to eye, they all respect Dillon as an honest broker. So, apparently, do her bosses. She’s one of only three members of Thomas M. Menino’s Cabinet who was kept on by Walsh.
On one point, Dillon is adamant: Boston must build its way out of this crisis, and the city will need the private market’s help. There just isn’t enough public money — at the local, state, or federal level — to fund enough affordable housing to meet the city’s needs. “We are not going to be able to subsidize our way out of this,” she says. “We’re really relying on the market to solve this problem.”
That means encouraging development at relatively high density, even in neighborhoods that may not exactly embrace the idea. That can lead to some delicate conversations, Dillon admits. Telling people that their neighborhoods need to build more housing because Boston has a citywide problem is not always easy.
She’s a fan of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s push to rezone industrial areas of South Boston and Jamaica Plain, calling it a way to increase housing without adding pressure on existing residential neighborhoods. And she’s quick to call Boston “a gem,” a historic city where new development needs to be planned thoughtfully.
“You have to worry about good design. You have to worry about treatment of adjacent neighborhoods,” she says. “You want to make sure the city is developed respectfully.”
Still, there’s a hard number Dillon mentions often: 53,000. That’s how many housing units the Walsh administration hopes to create by 2030. Dillon — working with a raft of local housing experts — devised a comprehensive strategy to reach that goal.
“Look at population growth. Look at the housing stock. This is what we need,” she says. “We’re trying to solve for a specific question, rather than just running affordable housing programs.”
So far, so good.
The 9,000 units Boston has added since 2011, with 8,000 more under construction, means the city has seen 17,000 unit starts over five years, a pace well ahead of its 53,000 target. And all that new construction is starting to pay off, as rents — at least for now — appear to be leveling out.
Still, Boston is the third most expensive place to rent an apartment in the country, after New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s another number Dillon wants to change someday.
“I’d like to get rid of that stat,” she says. “I’d like us to be tenth.” — Tim Logan
BRIGHTENING BRIGHTON’S HORIZON
It rises like a sleek spaceship beside the Massachusetts Turnpike in Brighton: The new world headquarters of shoe giant New Balance.
When it opened last fall, the 250,000-square-foot building, designed by architectural firm Elkus Manfredi, was hailed as an architectural triumph and a modern billboard for one of Boston’s best known companies. But it’s more than that. The New Balance site is the anchor of master-planned Boston Landing, a seven-structure complex of office buildings, retail, and entertainment that’s quickly transforming a long-sleepy stretch of the city’s western edge.
Indeed, even as Boston Landing — with its park, new streets, and Bruins practice facility — gets built out and a commuter rail station financed by New Balance prepares to open next year, construction is flooding the neighborhood. On the surrounding streets and in nearby Brighton Center, there are nine new or proposed developments, adding 800 apartments and condos. Even more are in the works.
All that development will be changing Brighton for years to come. And to think that future started with one sleek spaceship over the Pike. — Tim Logan
BOUNCING BACK BIG IN THE WESTERN BURBS
Whoever said the outer suburbs were over must have forgotten to tell Marlborough. The city of about 40,000 on the western rim of Interstate 495 is enjoying an economic renaissance.
In the last few years, it has attracted a string of leading tech and corporate tenants, from Boston Scientific to TJX Cos. One of the biggest fish Marlborough landed was the headquarters of GE’s Life Sciences division, which moved from New Jersey and is building out lab space where hundreds of people will work.
Those wins have brought 5,000 new jobs to Marlborough since 2012, when Fidelity Investments moved a big campus out of town and many questioned how communities in Boston’s outer belt would bounce back from the housing downturn.
Up next, the development of the APEX Center, a 43-acre project slated to be approved by city officials in late May, which would bring two hotels, office buildings, and live-work-play amenities (a bowling alley!) aimed at luring today’s modern employers and the employees that come with them. After that, a delegation from China is working on a deal to build a business park and establish a foothold in an East Coast tech hub.
When all that comes together, at least one outer suburb will be right back in the thick of things. — Tim Logan
A NEW HIGH FOR BOSTON HOTELS
If you think Boston real estate prices are nuts, try to wrap your head around this: A million dollars for a room. Well, almost. The 148-room Mandarin Oriental Hotel sold for a $140 million in January, the richest hotel deal the city has ever seen. Hong Kong-based Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group bought the Boylston Street hotel from a now-defunct Irish bank.
The five-star Mandarin attracts well-heeled international and business travelers who can afford accommodations that start at $695 a night. Its Dynasty Suite, offered at $8,000 a night, is bigger than most three-bedroom apartments. — Megan Woolhouse
THE FAST, WOOD-FRAMED FUTURE OF APARTMENT LIVING
You might call them the modern-day equivalent of triple-deckers. The four- to six-story woodframe apartment buildings popping up from Brighton to Dorchester are fast becoming the next generation of more affordable housing in Boston.
Because they’re made of wood above a one-story concrete foundation, they can be built quickly and less expensively. And they make it possible to put 150 or 200 units on a relatively small piece of land, often near a T station, frequently with more parking for bikes than cars.
But these buildings are more than a new kind of construction. They could be one solution to Boston’s housing crunch. The buildings are big enough to make a dent in the city’s desperate need for new housing, especially in the outlying neighborhoods many Bostonians call home.
Their appeal has prompted Boston’s powerful construction unions to offer a lower wage rate on some jobs to help ensure they win more wood-frame work. City officials hope that can bring down prices enough to spark construction in lower-income neighborhoods missing out on the building boom, like Hyde Park and Mattapan. Meanwhile, demand will likely get a boost from the Boston Redevelopment Authority as it rezones transit-friendly stretches of South Boston, Jamaica Plain, and Dorchester to support denser development.
The wood-frame buildings do have their limitations, however. Few include many units bigger than a two-bedroom, and some families may balk at living quarters clearly aimed at a no-kids crowd. Most units are rentals and don’t offer the financial flexibility family-owned triple-deckers gave to generations of owners.
But the wood-frame apartment building could become an important answer for a new generation surging into Boston, wondering how to find an affordable place to call home. — Tim LoganSend comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.