Because no one, not even Tom Menino, thinks the incumbent mayor can wrestle down Boston’s inhospitably high housing costs in these final few months of his tenure, it’s easy to dismiss Menino’s recent blueprint for creating 30,000 units of new housing for Boston by 2020. Yet in the report, Menino’s administration, which in the past has been acutely sensitive to public fears about tall buildings and rapid development, is sending an important signal to Bostonians: To accommodate the people who want to live in the city without pushing up costs even further, Boston needs to build higher and denser — and ease up on some rules, including minimum unit-size standards, that push up costs.
This is a message that Menino’s successor needs to take to heart. Indeed, some mayoral hopefuls are already emphasizing the need to bring down the cost of housing construction and get more units built on a limited supply of land.
Since Menino’s first housing plan was launched in 2000, more than 20,000 units of housing have been created and preserved on his watch. His final housing plan highlights the complexity of the problem that remains. There is a continuing need to expand housing options for the poor, as well as increasing demand among seniors, empty-nesters, and a growing urban work force. The city expects 100,000 new jobs to be created by 2020, increasing the demand for middle-income housing.
Over the years, Boston has focused intensely on increasing its stock of subsidized units, and has created them in part by requiring their inclusion in developments full of luxury units. But Bostonians who earn too much for subsidized units but too little for plush downtown lofts have had few options. To produce the needed housing stock, Menino is proposing to allow taller structures with smaller units.
His plan raises a host of other options. He suggests selling public land to developers at a discount and using subsidies to encourage development of more affordable housing. He also urges Boston to consider adopting the Community Preservation Act, which allows cities to add surcharges to property tax bills to help pay for affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation. When the measure was last on the ballot in 2001, Menino stayed out of the fray, and Boston voters rejected it. Since then, some 155 communities around the state — including Cambridge and Somerville — adopted it and are now reaping its monetary benefits. These ideas deserve careful consideration from the city’s next mayor.
But if nothing else, Menino’s housing plan should embolden his would-be successors to accelerate the pace of housing construction in Boston. The best way to control housing costs is to build more.