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Mass. housing deficit fuels social ills, report says

Work continued on Arsenal Yards, a new development under construction on the site of the Arsenal Mall. Lane Turner/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Most cities and towns in Greater Boston aren’t building enough housing to keep up with population growth, and that is helping to perpetuate the region’s long and deep racial and class divides.

That’s the thrust of a report being released Wednesday by the Boston Foundation and other groups that track housing costs and construction across Eastern Massachusetts. It highlights how policies that promoted segregation in earlier decades persist today, according to the authors, albeit in different forms.

“It’s not an earth-shattering surprise that Greater Boston has a great deal left to do when it comes to addressing the legacy of social and economic segregation,” said the foundation’s CEO, Paul Grogan. “What may be surprising is the level to which overt redlining tactics designed to keep racial and ethnic minorities out of some areas has been replaced by economic, social, and zoning barriers.”


The report argues that a shortage of construction is driving up home prices and preventing people from moving to many cities and towns, especially ones where not much is built. That, in turn, is forcing more workers into lengthy commutes and making it hard for some companies to find employees.

Of the nation’s 25 largest metro areas, the study found, only seven permitted less housing per capita in 2017 than Greater Boston, despite strong job growth here.

Within the region — 147 cities and towns in five counties — a majority of housing permits in the last five years have been issued in just 15 municipalities. Half of all multifamily housing has been built in four of them: Boston, Cambridge, Everett, and Watertown.

“This is a very bumpy and uneven thing,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, lead author of the report and associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Much of the data-heavy document is devoted to measuring where building is, and isn’t, happening across the region.


Modestino found that only 19 cities and towns are building at a fast enough clip to do their “fair share” — based on population — to create the 135,000 new housing units that Governor Charlie Baker has called for by 2025 to meet housing demand.

In some, such as Boston, that’s a product of strong demand and a wave of large-scale development. In others, such as tiny Boxborough, it stems from one or two large projects, often allowed through the state’s controversial 40B program, which can override local approvals in municipalities with too-little affordable housing.

The report also details how other communities — among them Braintree, Brookline, and Newton — are falling far short of that pace, regardless of demand or 40B requirements.

“We are not shying away from difficult conversations we need to have about how much housing we need to build,” Modestino said. “This has been the elephant in the room for 15 years now. We’re dealing with it head-on.”

Zoning and how it can block construction is an issue that’s rising in prominence not just in Massachusetts but nationally, as more parts of the country struggle with housing affordability.

On Tuesday, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that construction lagged demand nationwide by 260,000 units in 2018, while the Trump administration said it would launch a White House council on “Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development” to target so-called exclusionary zoning rules.


Also this week, Senator Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, filed a bill that would require cities that receive federal community development grants to “detail their rationale for choosing not to cut harmful land use regulations.” Young said it would be a way to “shed light on discriminatory land-use policies.”

The Boston Foundation report also echoes a recent study detailing the “paper wall” of zoning rules that make it hard to build multifamily housing in much of Greater Boston. And it comes amid a full-court press by Baker to have lawmakers pass a bill that would make it easier for cities and towns to change zoning to allow new housing.

Passing Baker’s bill would be a “logical first step” to tackling the region’s housing shortage, Modestino said, but it won’t be enough. The study recommends more programs to encourage denser development, require affordable housing in new projects in more cities and towns, and bolster aid for first-time and minority home buyers.

“The Housing Choice bill is not a panacea,” Modestino said, referring to Baker’s bill. “We’re not going to solve affordable housing with one bill.”

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