As state policy makers and advocates warn that Greater Boston cities and towns need to do much more to meet the region’s growing housing needs, several communities are helping demonstrate how the challenge might be met.
A recent report highlighting the need for more local housing production found that from 2013 to 2017, 15 municipalities issued more than half the building permits in the state. Boston led the way, followed by Cambridge, Plymouth, Watertown, Everett, Weymouth, Somerville, Burlington, Chelsea, Framingham, Hopkinton, Middleborough, Quincy, Arlington, and Canton.
Everett and Watertown also joined Boston and Cambridge on a list of four communities that permitted more than half the multifamily housing, according to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card issued by the Boston Foundation in collaboration with the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and other groups, based on federal Census data.
In Watertown, which permitted 1,296 housing units in the four-year period, Community Development and Planning director Steve Magoon credited the town’s regulatory and elected boards with making the tough decisions needed to allow projects to go forward.
“They were willing to approve projects that made sense and that worked,” said Magoon, also assistant town manager. “While it was important to them to protect the character of the community, they also recognized the value of economic development and growth and the need for more housing.”
“NIMBY concerns carry the day in too many communities,” Magoon added, noting that it can be daunting for local officials “to be faced with the onslaught of a lot of people opposed to a project. But finding a way to be responsive to those concerns and still move projects forward is very important. Watertown did that and more communities should.”
The recent report “demonstrates the power that local communities have to address housing — for better and worse,” Paul Grogan, president and CEO of the Boston Foundation, said in e-mailed comments. “In a few communities that have made a commitment to creating new housing, it’s happening. But in too many other communities, a vocal minority is enough not just to impede the creation of housing, but shut it down completely. It’s an issue of economic necessity and racial equity that Greater Boston must address.”
Local officials acknowledge not everyone in their communities welcomes the sight of new housing, particularly large-scale developments.
In Middleborough, a town of just over 24,000 residents south of Boston, 693 units were permitted from 2013 to 2017. “A lot of the people who have lived here their whole lives are not really happy with the change,” building commissioner Robert Whalen said, while “some think it’s good for the town.”
Recognizing the divide, officials in municipalities seeing significant development try to ensure it is compatible with the community. Everett, for instance, adopted inclusionary zoning to ensure that as market-rate units are built, affordable ones also are added.
In a statement, Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria said the city is benefiting from economic growth but needs to ensure all residents “can afford to stay here.”
Explaining why housing production has surged in some cities and towns, local officials cited proactive measures by the communities and market forces.
“Part of it is happening organically,” said Tony Sousa, Everett’s director of planning and development, noting because it is close to Boston and some of its neighbors are becoming built-out, Everett has become appealing to developers. But he said the city, which permitted 1,261 units from 2013 to 2017, also has adopted zoning to encourage more multifamily and mixed residential and commercial projects.
Several large-scale projects in the city of about 47,000 account for many of the new housing units, including the Batch Yard, 328 units at the former Charleston Chew factory site; the 190-unit Wellington Parkside, next to the Malden River; and The Pioneer, a recently-opened 289-unit development on Revere Beach Parkway.
Andy Montelli, whose Connecticut-based Post Road Residential firm developed the Batch Yard and The Pioneer, said Everett first drew the interest of his firm because it sits on heavily traveled roadways and had little new housing.
“We felt if we could build a place that was really attractive and a great place to live, that people would come to it, and they have,” he said. “Everett has become a very desirable place to live now.”
That’s in part because the Encore Boston Harbor casino opened in Everett last month.
Sousa said the new casino has had “some effect and I can see in the future it having greater effect,” on the city’s housing market, citing the demand for apartments from people working at the new facility.
Montelli is already seeing the impact from the $2.6 billion resort on the Mystic River.
“We’ve been flooded with [workers] from the casino looking to rent at The Pioneer,” he said. “When you bring 5,000 employees to any city, that is going to have a significant impact.”
Magoon said Watertown in recent years has adopted zoning changes to encourage residential and mixed-use redevelopment along the Pleasant Street and Arsenal Street corridors as a way of reinvigorating those areas.
Those efforts helped set the stage for a spurt of rental housing construction, which has included Gables Arsenal Street, a 296-unit development, the nearly completed 282-unit Elan Union Market apartments, and the ongoing conversion of Arsenal Mall to Arsenal Yards, a mixed-use project that will include 300 apartments.
Jorgen Punda, regional vice president for investments for Gables Residential, which built Gables Arsenal Street, said in e-mailed comments that the firm was drawn to Watertown at a time it was interested in offering “a first-class residential community” outside Boston.
“Watertown offered an opportunity to introduce our product to the marketplace at a more modest rental rate than what can be found in the city, while still having the advantage of neighborhood conveniences and ease of access to downtown Boston,” Punda said.
Iphigenia Demetriades, who has long worked in real estate in Watertown, credits the town of about 36,000 residents with changes that have opened the way for much-needed new apartments.
“They made it easier for people to get permitting,” said Demetriades, currently a consultant for Gables Residential but speaking for herself. She said Watertown’s own advantages also have helped.
“Watertown has easy access to Boston and it’s not as expensive,” she said, adding that in Boston, “There is a lot of competition for land and the costs are high.”
Janis Akerstrom, Middleborough’s economic and community development director, sees some of those same factors at work in her town.
“Middleborough, because of its available land at reasonable cost and because of the growth that’s happened in Boston, is becoming a location developers are looking to put housing,” she said.
Mashhour Moukaddem, developer of The Woodlands, a nearly completed 234-unit apartment complex in Middleborough, said the site’s location near highways and “the need for housing for people moving out of Boston” inspired him to purchase the project in 2014 and then to proceed with local permitting and construction.
“We did some research on all the communities within 5 miles of that location and found that 95 to 97 percent of the housing was occupied,” he said.
“No single measure or effort will solve the housing issues we face,” said Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “But it’s clear that those with the commitment to think more holistically about multifamily housing, inclusionary zoning, and affordable housing trust funds, for example, are better positioned to meet the need for affordable housing.”
“Ultimately, those communities that provide opportunity to responsibly create new housing opportunities will be better off in the long run,” he added.
NEXT WEEK: Towns struggle to balance the need for new housing against the changes it brings.