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There’s barely any housing being built in the suburbs

Work is underway on the high-rise Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences in the Back Bay — condo units that will be affordable to only a tiny percentage of Bostonians.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before:

Greater Boston is adding housing at a rapid clip, but really just in Boston and a handful of close-in cities. Most suburban towns aren’t building much at all.

And that dynamic, coupled with hot demand in a growing economy, is keeping home prices high and making it hard for young families to find a foothold in the housing market.

That’s the gist of the 15th annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, which the Boston Foundation is publishing Tuesday.

The author of the longstanding study, Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone, may be forgiven for sounding repetitive. He has hit on some of the same themes in his last few annual reports — namely, that Boston is carrying the brunt of the region’s housing needs. Yet even so, working families are being priced out by graduate students and young professionals, while too little is being built in more-affordable areas.

“We’ve had real success in the city of Boston,” Bluestone said. “But permitting is actually down outside of Boston.”


The report found that cities and towns around the region are on track to issue about 13,000 building permits for houses and apartments this year. That would be down 5 percent from the peak in 2015, but higher than in any other year in the past decade.

But more than four in 10 of those permits were issued by Boston alone, and the city’s share of the region’s construction has nearly doubled since 2012.

The administration of Mayor Martin J. Walsh has made housing a top priority, with a goal of 53,000 additional units by 2030. Boston officials rapidly cut down on the time they take to issue permits, the report said, with the average apartment building needing four months to get through the process, compared to 14 months three years ago.


And despite the flood of graduate students and young professionals drawn to universities and jobs here, the housing units that have been built over the past few years are starting to have an impact. The report is the latest to point out that rents have fallen slightly over the last year — though some critics say the decline means little to most residents, given the already high cost of housing here.

The bigger housing crunch right now is in the suburbs, Bluestone said. While a handful of towns — from Plymouth to Framingham to Chelmsford — have added large amounts of housing in the past few years, most towns near Boston have added very little, especially in the form of modestly priced apartment and condo buildings.

That’s a mistake, Bluestone said, and one that many towns will realize only when aging baby boomers want to sell their single-family homes but have nowhere smaller to move to. Those folks will either stay put, which will prevent needed housing from coming onto the market, or uproot entirely and leave the area for a lack of somewhere suitable to live.

This is an argument that Bluestone, the Boston Foundation, and other housing advocates have been making for years, with little change at the State House or in many town halls, where development decisions get made.

Business leaders have grown increasingly concerned that housing prices are an obstacle to economic growth in Greater Boston, and some worry that they would surge even higher should, for instance, Amazon decide to locate its massive “second headquarters” in Boston.


It’s past time, he said, for a concerted effort by political and business leaders to encourage the construction of more housing — of all types — in the suburbs.

“We need people to realize this housing is not about the unwashed masses coming to their town,” he said. “It’s for you, when you get old and want to stay in your community.”

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