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OPINION

How to make rent affordable in Boston

Design innovative housing that fits renters’ needs and build it quickly and at scale.

A row of triple-deckers in Mattapan.
A row of triple-deckers in Mattapan.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston is a city of trailblazers. We’re innovators in medicine, tech, education, and most importantly, society. From the American Revolution to breaking ground on the nation’s first subway system, Boston has modeled for the nation how cities can transform society. The city championed these causes because its residents valued the welfare of Boston’s citizens. We need to reconnect with that value to tackle one of the most critical issues facing the city today — affordable rent.

Economists estimate that if tenants spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, they are considered rent-burdened. In 2018, half of Boston renting households spent at least 30 percent of their income on rent, and a quarter of renting households spent at least 50 percent of income on rent. About 34 percent of US households are renters, but in Boston, it’s nearly 64 percent, and 338,000 Bostonians are rent-burdened.

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Everyone who works in Boston should be able to afford to live in Boston. While rents have decreased during the coronavirus pandemic — the median rent for a studio apartment in April 2021 is $1,750, down 12 percent from last April — this is still out of reach for many. Meanwhile, long-term drivers of rental rates, such as zoning policy — which impact master planning, permitting, and new construction — have not evolved quickly enough to meet Boston’s shifting housing needs. Boston’s housing crisis will drive away key talent, especially as remote work becomes more prevalent post-pandemic. The opportunity for affordable rental housing is two-pronged:

1. Design innovative housing that fits renters’ needs. The average studio apartment in the United States is 10 percent smaller than it was a decade ago. Renters’ habits are largely driving this trend, with single people and couples preferring to live small to pay less. Empty-nesters are also increasingly looking to downsize.

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If legislation shifted to accommodate higher density lifestyle trends, such as smaller unit size and lower parking requirements, it would open up myriad opportunities for rapid housing creation. This change could accelerate the adoption of new building techniques, such as prefab construction. As an example, modular units could be established as small single-unit backyard homes or stacked into multi-unit apartments. While construction costs may be comparable to more traditional structures, prefab housing technology has the potential to increase supply while also reducing construction time. But small doesn’t have to sacrifice comfort. Despite the size, these are living spaces people can embrace: units with high ceilings for a sense of expansiveness, full kitchens to encourage home cooking and wellness, a washer/dryer for ease of living, and other features that make a house a home.

This kind of housing would increase supply and affordability. Furthermore, shifting renters into this kind of housing could open extant multi-family homes to actual families.

Multi-family spaces such as Boston’s iconic triple-deckers (about 9,000 in Boston) are often filled with groups of young people living as roommates in order to pay the rent. If given the choice between a private, high quality, furnished apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, and washer/dryer at a similar price and a crammed home with three roommates, coin-op laundry, and no counter space, they would probably take the first option.

2. Build innovative housing quickly and at scale. This requires effort from every level of the community, from individuals electing representatives committed to tackling housing affordability to cutting-edge startups to corporate-led initiatives. It also requires an open-minded commitment to embracing novel strategies. Boston’s Compact Living Pilot, which allows the creation of smaller but comfortable units under 450 square feet, is an excellent start.

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There is also growing interest in changing state and city zoning policy to a form of upzoning that would allow accessory dwelling units — small independent residences on the same lot as a detached single family home; i.e., granny flats or accessory apartments — although most initiatives don’t currently include policy on detached ADUs. While Boston decides, California — which faces a similar housing crisis — has already passed legislation to give homeowners the right to create these units. Let’s not make the same mistake we made when we backed the mainframe over the PC. We handed the personal computer revolution to California, but the affordable housing renaissance can be ours.

The city — and the state — should reform housing policy not only for the welfare of its residents, but also to set an example for the rest of the nation. A new national poll by Vox and Data for Progress show that 54 percent of likely voters support withholding infrastructure funding from local governments unless they “stop making it illegal to build multifamily housing.” Similar calls for the allowance of backyard ADUs have been sweeping the nation from the local level to Biden’s Infrastructure bill. Boston has a duty to its citizens to resolve the city’s housing crisis, but in doing so, it also has the opportunity to model these changes for the nation. Boston needs to do what we do best: innovate solutions to major crises and lead the nation to a healthier future. We’ve risen to the occasion numerous times in the past, most recently when the world needed a COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s make Boston the Home of Housing Innovation.

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Scott Bailey is cofounder of Bequall, a missing middle modular housing company.