Opinion

PAUL MCMORROW

In a vacant lot, the story of Boston’s housing crunch

THERE ISN’T much that’s special about the hole on the ground on Savin Hill Avenue in Dorchester. Boston’s neighborhoods are full of vacant lots that sit in the middle of bustling neighborhoods, and they all stick out like missing teeth. It just happens that this particular missing tooth, which is sandwiched between a neighborhood pub, the Savin Hill Red Line station, and the Southeast Expressway, also sits around the corner from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s house.

Walsh just challenged the city to build 53,000 new homes by the year 2030, and his neighborhood coffee spot sits directly across the street from a piece of land that should be pushing Boston toward that mark. Instead, a tug-of-war over 15 parking spaces is threatening to preserve a prime housing development parcel as an overgrown patch of nothing. And it’s showing that Boston’s broken zoning code weighs heaviest on the people who are least able to navigate it.

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The land, which has been vacant for over a decade, is next to the Savin Bar and Kitchen. The current redevelopment proposal calls for filling in the gap along Savin Hill Avenue with a new retail storefront, and placing 14 condominiums above both the new storefront and the pub next door.

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Development fights in Boston almost always boil down to battles over height or parking, and this time it’s the parking. There won’t be enough room to park cars underneath the proposed building. A neighborhood civic group previously endorsed a version of the condominium project that included one parking spot for every condominium unit, with the new residents parking in a business lot down the block. That deal fell through, and a bid to build the new housing without any parking spots has split the neighborhood. A one-spot-per-condo demand from the neighborhood could sink any construction on the site.

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Zero-parking development isn’t a stretch in most of Boston. About one of every three households around the Savin Hill T station are car-free already. It won’t be a tough sell to move 14 condos across the street from the Red Line. And, broadly, the trend line in Boston is heading toward fewer cars, not more. Even so, Boston’s zoning code is badly out of date, and it makes ordinary housing projects like the one in Savin Hill enormously difficult to pull off. More than anything else, this difficulty in getting small-scale housing out of the ground is straining Boston’s housing supply.

Boston’s broken zoning doesn’t just let builders put triple-deckers in neighborhoods where they are commonplace. The city pushes small-scale builders into a long, arduous building approval process — one that’s set up to give neighbors virtual veto power over new building. Big developers working in the downtown core often don’t need good zoning, because they’re used to getting their building permits by cutting deals with Boston development officials. Small builders don’t work on that level.

It takes too long, and costs too much, to get approvals to build modest neighborhood buildings. It can be tougher to get a permit to build 14 condos in Dorchester than it is to get permits for a 38-story apartment tower at North Station. Zoning dysfunction keeps many builders on the sidelines. But Boston can’t keep stacking the deck against neighborhood redevelopment, because middle-class housing opportunities lie scattered throughout the city’s neighborhoods, not downtown.

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Boston can’t keep ignoring empty lots, small projects in the outlying neighborhoods, and triple-deckers elbowing in between existing triple-deckers. If Boston is going to hit its new housing goal, a big part of the lift has to be in gap parcels like the one in Walsh’s neighborhood. Boston has scores of vacant parcels sitting between triple-decker houses. They should become modestly scaled housing projects, but they often don’t, because complicated city regulations get in the way.

Walsh’s administration is now tackling a city zoning overhaul, to help advance its new housing goal. That effort should start by making it easier to build typical Boston buildings in the city’s neighborhoods. Fifty-three thousand new homes is an ambitious housing goal, but it’s a lot more achievable if it starts with a focus on the small stuff.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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