Building affordable housing can be pretty hard in Boston. Now, some on the City Council are hoping to make it easier.
Two councilors last week launched a push to loosen zoning restrictions for some kinds of affordable housing developments in the city. While details remain to be worked out, Councilor Kenzie Bok, who represents several downtown neighborhoods, and Councilor Matt O’Malley, of Jamaica Plain, are calling for a hearing this fall to find ways to streamline Boston’s arcane zoning code for buildings that are 100 percent affordable housing, or affordable to very low income residents — the sorts of affordable housing the city says it desperately needs.
“We should be expediting these sort of projects,” Bok said. ‘We need to make them easier to build. More predictable, and less expensive.”
While the city does help to subsidize affordable housing developments, they’re subject to the same arduous zoning process as any other project in Boston, often requiring rounds of community meetings and intense negotiations with neighbors over everything from the height of the building to the number of parking spaces. That adds time, and thus cost, to projects that are already hard to finance, and often leaves them smaller than what was initially proposed. It also leaves projects more vulnerable to lawsuits that can further delay them.
That’s happening now in Jamaica Plain, where a project providing affordable and supportive housing for the formerly homeless is stalled by a lawsuit from a neighboring property owner who is concerned it includes too little parking. The project — developed by the Pine Street Inn and housing nonprofit The Community Builders — won zoning approvals with strong neighborhood support, O’Malley said, but may be derailed by one opponent.
“It was as slam-dunk as I’ve ever seen for a development of this scale, and you’ve got one person — who doesn’t even live in the neighborhood — filing a frivolous lawsuit,” O’Malley said. “That’s his right. But it’s putting this project in jeopardy.”
Minimum parking requirements are the sort of thing that new affordable-housing zoning rules could potentially do away with, Bok said. Perhaps buildings could be allowed to be taller if they include more affordable units. Maybe some fees could be reduced.
“There are a bunch of hoops that we ask buildings to jump through even when they’re doing 100 percent affordable housing,” she said. “We should be able to say ‘you can forgo that.‘”
Those hoops are popular with people who say they support affordable housing but want to make sure it fits with their neighborhood. And efforts to change the restrictions have gone slowly.
A similar proposal in Cambridge to streamline zoning for affordable housing has been hotly debated for nearly two years and was a major issue in last year’s City Council elections. Last week, a subcommittee voted 6-1-1 to advance it, setting the measure up for likely approval this fall.
“I truly believe this ordinance will accomplish two very important goals,” said Cambridge City Council member Marc McGovern. “One being to make the building of 100 percent affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents more financially viable. And two, bringing affordable housing to parts of the city where it’s currently lacking.”
Boston, of course, would just be starting the legislative process. Bok and O’Malley said they want a hearing this fall to talk through what sort of changes might make sense. Legislation would eventually follow. To succeed, any plan would likely need the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who has made housing — and especially affordable housing — one of his top priorities while in office.
Walsh, in a statement, was noncommittal toward the zoning proposal, though he noted his administration recently launched a new $30 million round of funding for affordable housing.
“As a city, we are committed to creating safe, affordable, and equitable housing for all families in Boston,” he said. “We must work together to do everything we can so families can continue to live in our neighborhoods and call Boston their home.”
And those who build affordable housing say they like the idea, while also noting that projects need to check many boxes — from financing to neighborhood support — to succeed.
“We’re definitely supportive of anything that would make it easier to build affordable housing,” said Joe Kriesberg, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which represents nonprofit housing developers. “There are many barriers, and any time you can reduce or eliminate one, it makes it easier.”