Opinion

DANTE RAMOS

Boston defies the laws of housing physics

At some point, it’s got to be easier just to build enough market-rate housing in Greater Boston to satisfy demand. Instead, as if the law of supply and demand were negotiable, people are managing the outward symptoms of the problem in increasingly exotic ways.

Through bribery, for instance.

Earlier this month, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office secured an indictment against two former employees of Roxse Homes, a Roxbury subsidized housing development. The men took more than $30,000 in cash payments from would-be tenants, the prosecution alleges, in exchange for letting them skip a queue of other applicants.

Advertisement

The Roxse case, presumably, is a rare one. But it underscores how, in a place where the average one-bedroom apartment rents for $2,250, people of modest means go from one long waiting list to the next and live at the mercy of the agencies that run affordable-housing programs.

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The deeper problem is the vast mismatch between the supply of units and the demand for them. Boston and surrounding communities can only build themselves out of this hole. Meanwhile, we act as if more aggressive law enforcement and more enlightened administrative action is a cure-all.

Exhibit two: the city’s wishful approach to substandard student housing.

Last year, the Globe Spotlight team detailed the squalid conditions for college and graduate students in many off-campus apartments. Because of a constrained supply, there are plenty of willing tenants for sketchy units that no self-respecting landlord should offer up for rental. When there’s a captive audience, owners feel no pressure to make upgrades or even basic repairs.

This year, as in previous ones, the city sent dozens of inspectors around Allston and other neighborhoods on move-in weekend in late August. But a smattering of city employees can’t be everywhere.

Advertisement

The best check against unscrupulous landlords occurs when tenants — students or otherwise — have a large enough choice of units that they can reject a shoddy one, secure in the knowledge there are other options.

Boston’s problem isn’t unique. Nationwide, according to a study released Monday by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the supply of new rental units isn’t keeping up with the number of new households; from 2005 to 2014, 2.2 million rental units were built, even as demand rose by 7.9 million renters.

But Boston has been tangling with this issue for a much longer period, during which activists and policy makers have focused more on cultivating a supply of subsidized units than on expanding the overall housing stock. In Egleston Square, community groups are fighting a mixed-use development that will include more rent-restricted units than required under city rules; the coalition wants all of the units to carry below-market rents — a change that would undermine the viability of the privately funded project.

Creating below-market-rate units is an uphill climb. Either they need to be subsidized by other units in the same development, or they require an artful matching of land with the right mix of private financing and public assistance. Earlier this year, the developer Related Beal announced a highly unusual project involving 239 below-market-rate units in a fabulous spot near North Station. Of course, most of that site is state property, which means the developer can obtain favorable terms — an advantage the typical mixed-use project doesn’t have.

Furthermore, while subsidized units fill an important niche, they aren’t much help for people whose earnings fall just above the eligibility threshold, or who meet the guidelines but can’t get off the waiting list.

Advertisement

Mayor Marty Walsh’s development-friendly administration, at least, has been working to reorient the public discussion around the overall housing supply, setting a goal of 53,000 new units by 2030. Making good on that number may require some delicate footwork: persuading height-averse neighbors to accept an extra couple of floors, allowing developers to build more living space instead of parking space, inviting private dormitories and other unfamiliar cohousing arrangements into a temperamentally skeptical city.

Creating below-market-rate units is an uphill climb.

“The people united will never be against private dorms!”

“Hey hey, ho, ho, cumbersome permitting’s got to go!”

Not the catchiest rallying cries. But the alternative isto keep expecting city inspectors and, occasionally, federal prosecutors to fix problems that only a lot more housing can solve.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.