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OPINION | BARRY BLUESTONE

Finally — the tiny apartments that millennials need

A rendering of Scape’s proposed development — small apartments at modest rents — in the Fenway.
A rendering of Scape’s proposed development — small apartments at modest rents — in the Fenway.(Gensler)

SCAPE, A BRITISH developer, is proposing a new apartment building for the Fenway neighborhood that would come with all the usual amenities — a gym, on-site laundry, even a black box theater on the first floor.

But the living units would be small (about 290 square feet) and — unlike many of the luxury apartments that have sprung up in this newly fashionable part of town over the past several years — priced below market.

Hallelujah.

For years, I have been calling for just this sort of compact, affordable, amenity-rich development — aimed squarely at graduate students and undergraduates, medical interns and residents, and other young professionals who are tired of paying exorbitant rents for larger, aging apartments.

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Why? Well, this kind of housing would be good not just for debt-laden millennials, but for the rest of us.

Currently, to make ends meet in the city’s white-hot housing market, many students and early-career office workers are doubling-, tripling-, and quadrupling-up in triple deckers and garden apartments.

That demand has helped push the average rent for apartments in Boston up 59 percent since 2009. With average monthly rents now approaching $3,000, working people with families are being pushed further away from the city, in search of housing they can afford. That’s added to highway congestion throughout the region — affecting everyone.

It’s a system that works for no one. And we need to build a housing model that suits the moment, just as we have in the past.

From 1870 to 1920, we developed the triple decker to fill the needs of half a million immigrants who moved to Boston. After World War II, we built suburban “Levittown” homes to meet the needs of returning GIs who began families in their early 20s and wanted space to raise them. Today, the demographic revolution in Boston is made up of millennials and seniors. We need smaller units to fill their needs.

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Scape, the British developer in the Fenway, could help turn this concept into reality.

The firm, which has built student living facilities in London and Australia, knows its way around this kind of project. It is proposing units that would be turn-key and fully furnished, mitigating the impact to the community as students move in during the fall. The building would be professionally managed 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Monthly rent would cover all utilities, including high-speed Internet. And there would be plenty of common space for entertaining, inside and out.

(Gensler)

According to a survey I carried out with my graduate students at Northeastern last year, this type of housing is exactly what is desired — a chance to live alone, in attractive, affordable spaces, rather than crowding into older apartments with several roommates.

The market for this kind of project is sizable. According to a recent study by the city of Boston, out of the 151,000 university and college students living in Boston, about 35,000 undergraduates live off campus (and not in their parents’ homes) along with more than 39,000 graduate students — a group that represents two-thirds of all graduate students in the city.

In addition, there are thousands of other young professionals being trained in our hospitals to become part of the city’s innovative workforce and tens of thousands of others already at work in our biotech, financial services, and other local industries.

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And if these folks move into new developments tailored to their needs, that will free up more of our existing housing stock for working families — allowing parents and kids to live in the city’s triple deckers as intended.

The alternative — building new housing for working families — isn’t feasible. We know from developers’ records that the all-in cost of new housing now exceeds $300 per square foot. Few working families are in a position to pay up to $600,000 for a new home.

Scape-type housing is good for everyone, then — working families, students, and young professionals alike. I am hopeful that the developer will receive a warm welcome from the Fenway community and from all of Boston, and that we will see similar innovative projects throughout the region.


Barry Bluestone is the Stearns Trustee Professor Emeritus and founding dean of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs.