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Walsh unveils housing experiments

“We see this as an opportunity to test some concepts that could become reality,” said Marcy Ostberg (right), who co-leads the city’s Housing Innovation Lab.David L. Ryan/globe staff/file 2015/Globe Staff

In their bid to bring more middle-class housing to Boston, city officials are about to get experimental.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh Tuesday unveiled a new round of pilot programs that he hopes will help tackle Boston’s deepening housing crunch. Boston officials will test out new zoning rules, new types of housing, and new land policies that could help generate more affordable housing in a city wrestling with some of the highest rents in the nation.

“We’re testing new ideas here,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can to build more housing across the spectrum.”

The projects are the product of the Housing Innovation Lab, an arm of the Department of Neighborhood Development that’s being funded by a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to explore new approaches to housing. They’ve been meeting with experts both here and nationwide in recent months looking for ideas that are both easy to execute and potentially high-impact. The Housing Lab expects to launch its programs over the next few months.

“We see this as an opportunity to test some concepts that could become reality,” said Marcy Ostberg, co-lead of the Housing Innovation Lab. “We do believe they’ll have an impact on housing costs.”


The projects include:

■  A density bonus program. This would allow developers to build higher than current zoning allows if they add more affordable units to a housing project. It would likely be tested in areas of South Boston and Jamaica Plain and Roxbury that are currently being re-zoned by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

■  Compact living. Reducing the city’s minimum square-footage requirements on certain projects to allow for smaller two- and three-bedroom apartments. The Lab is hoping to partner with architects and developers on a model unit that it could bring to neighborhoods later this year for public input.

■  Community land trusts. Helping nonprofits and neighborhood-based groups assemble land to preserve or develop affordable housing.


■  A home buying portal. A city-run website to help first-time homebuyers navigate the process, find resources, and explore neighborhoods in the city that might suit them. “It’s a bit like a dating app for home-buying,” Ostberg said. “You put in info about yourself and it gives you areas you might not have thought about.”

The whole project is a recognition that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to Boston’s housing shortage, Ostberg said, and that people’s tastes and needs are evolving much faster than the city’s aging housing stock can keep up. “There are definitely new models that are going to emerge,” she said.

Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bytimlogan.