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More housing needed to spur growth, study says

Greater Boston could stagnate and become a far less vibrant area over the next few decades, choked by restrictive housing policies that could drive away restless young people and leave behind a rapidly aging population.

Or it could boom, driven by a surge of young adults drawn by affordable housing and the appeal of urban areas that offer exciting cultural and entertainment options, top-notch colleges, and smart transit choices.

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These competing visions were laid out in a report released this month by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. Which scenario plays out, planners say, depends on housing and transportation decisions that are being debated in many cities and towns right now.

“If we don’t have the housing we need, we can’t attract the people we need, and it discourages employers from moving to the region,” said Marc Draisen, the council’s executive director.

If there is strong growth, a large number of communities would see their population expand, some substantially, according to the report. Boston’s population could shoot from 617,000 in 2010 to more than 700,000 in 2030, with nearby urban areas also expecting growth.

In the Globe North area, Everett, Revere, Somerville, Methuen, and Malden could grow more than 20 percent by the year 2030, according to the report. But 14 communities are projected to lose residents, including Boxford, Wenham, Nahant, Newbury, and Topsfield.

The region will see strong growth if it can build enough housing, particularly apartments and condos in urban areas and town centers, if it can attract and retain more young people, and if the trend toward urban living continues, according to the report.

‘If we don’t have the housing we need, we can’t attract the people we need, and it discourages employers from moving to the region.’

MARC DRAISEN, Executive director, Metropolitan Area Planning Council 
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On the other hand, “continued widespread opposition to new housing” will likely result in less growth, the report’s authors said.

The Boston metropolitan area, which the report defined as about 160 communities roughly within the Interstate 495 belt, could grow more than 12 percent to about 5 million residents by 2040, if there is strong growth — or by about 6 percent if growth is slow.

Draisen pointed out that the numbers are merely projections. Communities could grow or shrink at rates not predicted because of policies and decisions taken by local officials or other changes not accounted for in the report.

Malden is an example of a community that is taking good steps, Draisen said, calling it an “in-between community” — a city that is also suburban.

The city is close to selling off its Government Center building, which would be demolished to open Pleasant Street to through traffic and replaced by a mixed-use apartment building with retail. That would help connect the Malden Center Orange Line stop and the commuter rail station with the city center, said Draisen and Mayor Gary Christenson.

Three other nearby housing developments will total about 500 units, said Christenson. “We’re trying to take advantage [with] a multitude of transit-oriented developments,” he said.

As a youth, Christenson remembered the debate among residents about the wisdom of having the Orange Line in Malden. The debate is over, he said. “In 2014, I believe it is our saving grace. Today, residents are looking for convenience,” he said. People want transit options — whether it’s the train, or walking, or biking.

He touted the city’s racial and ethnic diversity, shown by the wide variety of restaurants and houses of worship. “Dine in Malden and taste the world,” he said of its restaurants. There are 30 places to worship, including a mosque.

The Boston metropolitan area faces staggering demographic changes over the next few decades as members of the Baby Boom generation retire, said Draisen.

Younger people will be needed to take those retirees’ places in the workforce, and hopefully even more importantly, to help the region grow, he said.

Housing is key, said Draisen. Employers want to start companies in the area and employees want to live here, but housing prices are so high it is difficult to find anything reasonably priced.

Especially needed are affordable homes in urban areas and around town centers, whether they are apartments, condos, or single-family houses built on small lots in urban areas.

The report says about 435,000 units of housing will be needed, primarily in urban areas and mostly apartments and condos, for both young people and older people moving out of single-family homes.

Younger people are far more interested in living in areas where work and entertainment are close at hand, even within walking distance — a much different attitude from the 1960s and 1970s, when homes were built far from work, Draisen said. Increasingly, people hear the term “bedroom community” as a negative, a reversal from a generation ago.

He does see communities where officials understand this, particularly citing Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, Salem, Quincy, Malden, Melrose, and Natick.

It doesn’t have to be just the big cities that grow, he said. Young people want to be in town centers where there is good mass transit and entertainment, “where there’s vibrancy and lots of things going on.” They don’t mind having a car, but they don’t want to drive everywhere.

He is optimistic about growth, but change can be difficult. Town officials may understand what needs to be done, but “the gap between understanding and zoning, that will be a big challenge.”

Many developers still find themselves tied in knots over projects that should be allowed to move forward quickly, he said, urging communities to be more proactive and allow more building in the right places.

The region now builds about 8,000 units a year; that should be as high as 14,000 to meet future needs, he said.

Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, praised the report as showing a path forward for Boston communities. And he echoed the report, noting that its conclusions are only projections and communities can make changes to shape their future.

The three most important issues are affordable housing that’s appropriate for young people, such as apartments and condos in city or village centers; good schools; and fun, interesting amenities such as restaurants and parks. Mass transit is also needed, he said.

“Demographics are not destiny,” he said. “They can change their destiny.”

But if changes are not made, the Boston metropolitan area could become much older and less vital, he noted.

What is needed, Bluestone said, is “putting in place programs and policies that allow the region to grow faster and retain and attract younger people.”

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globemattc.
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