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Four hard truths about housing

Massachusetts doesn’t build nearly enough new housing, and when it does, it builds the wrong kind of housing. Zoning puritanism drives up the cost of housing, and it forces residents to abandon the state.

These are familiar complaints. But a new report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council puts fresh data on just how bad the state’s housing problem is — and how much work it will take to build a competitive housing market in Greater Boston.

MAPC argues that the region will need to construct 435,000 new homes by 2040, most of them multi-family units (condominiums, apartments, townhomes). The development need spans urban and suburban settings. “The status quo doesn’t give us a lot of hope,” says Marc Draisen, MAPC’s executive director. The status quo is a dead end. Massachusetts needs to change the way it builds housing to meet changes in the way people live. Here’s why.


■  Demographics are driving housing needs.

Massachusetts cities and towns need to change the way they approach housing because the state’s makeup is changing.

The state’s households are growing smaller. In 1970, the average household in greater Boston held 3.5 people; it’s 2.5 people today, and shrinking. Even if Massachusetts’ population didn’t grow at all between 2014 and 2040, shrinking households would mean that Massachusetts would still need 10 percent more housing than it has today.

Massachusetts is also aging quickly. The number of retirees in the state will double by 2040, and Massachusetts isn’t attracting nearly enough younger workers. A shrinking workforce could hamstring the state’s economy: If companies can’t find the talented younger workers they’ll demand here, they’ll grow someplace else.

A good slice of the burgeoning retiree population will wind up trading their single-family homes for denser homes, whether in downtown condominiums, smaller suburban townhomes, or assisted-living communities. And the next generation of workers demands a far different type of housing. Younger residents prefer cities and suburban spaces that have urban-like amenities such as an interesting base of local businesses, and active, walkable town centers. Whether in cities or the suburbs, demand is rising for smaller, more closely clustered homes.


■  Schools are no excuse.

Suburban housing opponents frequently ground their objections to any dense new housing in complaints about overloading the local school system. MAPC’s housing projections show these aren’t valid complaints. Greater Boston’s population of school-age children peaked years ago; it’s now 6 percent below what it was in the year 2000, and will likely slide another 6 to 9 percent over the coming decades. The big-picture worry is not about having too many children, but having too few taxpayers to pay for their schooling.

■  The shift away from single-family homebuilding is permanent.

Many cities and towns around the state are zoned for a way of living that’s vanishing. They make it easy to build large-lot single-family homes, but throw steep barriers in the way of dense housing. That’s a problem, because changing demographics mean both older and younger residents need newly developed multi-family homes far more than they need new single-family homes.

This doesn’t mean that nobody in Massachusetts will want to buy a single-family home over the next 30 years. But existing single-family homes, freed up by aging baby boomers, are already plentiful enough. MAPC estimates that two-thirds of the development demand over the next 30 years will be for homes in multi-family settings. Cities and towns need to concentrate their zoning and development efforts where they’re needed, rather than wasting land on unwanted single-family homes. Lowell, Haverhill, Natick, Marlborough, and Quincy have all made strides recently in making their zoning meet this new paradigm. Other municipalities should follow their examples.


■  Standing still isn’t an option.

MAPC sketched out two possible growth patterns: One in which Massachusetts continues losing residents to other states, and one in which it attracts enough young workers to expand the economy.

The status quo scenario brings Massachusetts an embarrassing 1 percent job growth rate; it leaves a large population of seniors depending on government services, without an influx of new taxpayers to fund them; and it still demands increased housing production, thanks to demographic shifts.

This isn’t a future anyone should want. And it isn’t one anyone should settle for. If the simple act of treading water demographically will require slow-growth towns to build more housing, they might as well put their shoulders into the effort, and wind up with a future worth celebrating.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.