Housing affordability worsening in Boston area, study says

Demographics don’t match availability

The report card describes a housing market that is increasingly out of synch with the demands of the region.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff/File
The report card describes a housing market that is increasingly out of synch with the demands of the region.

Young adults and their aging parents are engaged in an escalating and increasingly expensive struggle for one of Greater Boston’s scarcest resources: an affordable place to live.

The Boston area’s economy is thriving, but housing is falling short of meeting the needs of residents as the region undergoes major demographic shifts, according to the 12th annual housing report card, to be released Wednesday, by the Boston Foundation, a philanthropy.

Young workers drawn to Boston for its graduate programs and jobs in life sciences and technology are spending a greater share of their incomes to afford rents that are only climbing. In the suburbs, aging baby boomers who want to move to small homes requiring less maintenance but who want to stay in their communities are having a hard time finding alternatives to their Colonials with big yards, the Greater Boston Housing Report Card found.


The report card, prepared by the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, describes a housing market that is increasingly out of synch with the demands of the region.

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“It’s frustrating,” said Jennifer Smith, 27, an administrative assistant for a health care company who pays $1,750 a month for a one-bedroom Brighton apartment she and her husband rent. Spending so much on rent makes it difficult to save, Smith said, and they have thought of moving out of state to find cheaper housing.

“We really want to be able to [buy] a house one day,” she said, “but it almost feels like it’s not possible, given the market.”

The number of Boston-area homeowners who are spending more than a third of their income on housing — generally considered the threshold for affordability — has jumped to more than 38 percent from 27 percent in 2000, according to the report. Average rents are at an all-time high of $1,857 a month. More than one in four renters devote half their salaries to housing.

Millennials, those between the ages of 20 and 34, are taking up the three-deckers that used to be the housing stock for the Boston area’s working families, and they are rooming with two or three people per apartment to afford the high rents. As a result, families are being pushed farther out into the suburbs, requiring ever-longer commutes, the report found.


By 2030, the numbers of households headed by somebody 65 or older in the Boston area could increase by 282,000, the largest jump of any age group, as baby boomers age. Many are seeking to downsize in the city, adding to housing pressures that are driving prices and rents higher.

Condos or rental units in the suburbs might be more appropriate for these empty-nesters, but zoning requirements make it difficult to build those types of homes, said Barry Bluestone, the author of the report card and director of the Dukakis Center.

“Between the combination of the millennials who are staying and growing and the seniors who are becoming a larger part of the Boston-area demographic we need more housing,” he said.

Bluestone recommends that the suburbs ease their zoning requirements, and surrounding cities work with universities, developers, and employers to build more affordable apartments.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has called for building 53,000 more housing units, including subsidized moderate- and low-income units, by 2030.


He recommends millennial villages, where younger people can rent smaller units that have amenities such as spaces for small business incubators. Builders can save construction costs by offering shared kitchen and lounge areas.

‘It becomes disheartening to hear about all the growth in Boston and all you read about is luxury apartments and pools. . . . We don’t want to lose [employees].’ -- Jefferson Macklin, Barbara Lynch Gruppo president

Jefferson Macklin, the president of the local restaurant group Barbara Lynch Gruppo, said the robust economy and rejuvenation of some Boston neighborhoods have ensured that the city’s restaurants are booked, but many of the entry-level workers, such as dishwashers and line cooks, have to commute long distances, sometimes late at night, because they can’t afford to live close by.

“It becomes disheartening to hear about all the growth in Boston and all you read about is luxury apartments and pools,” he said. “We depend on a consistent flow of employees. We don’t want to lose them.”

But some affordable housing advocates aren’t convinced that the region can just build its way out of the problem. Steve Meacham, an organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana in Jamaica Plain, said the city and state government need laws that restrict when landlords can evict tenants or offer tax breaks to small landlords who keep rents affordable.

“No one believes that construction alone can solve this,” Meacham said.


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Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.