Drop politics from student housing plans
The city housing blueprint that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh released earlier this month wades into plenty of prickly areas, but none as prickly as the issue of student housing. Town-gown strains have weighed on Boston neighborhoods for several decades. Residents often chafe at students’ presence in Boston’s neighborhoods, but, from Brighton to Beacon Hill, recent attempts to house students on campus have become political minefields.
Walsh’s plan envisions shifting 16,000 undergraduate students into on-campus housing, and the mayor wants the move to happen within years, not decades. The student housing proposal is one of the more audacious ones Walsh has advanced since taking office in January. But a class of graduate students at Northeastern University solved the issue for him in one afternoon last week. They broke through because student housing in Boston isn’t really a physical problem. It’s a political problem.
That’s the dynamic that runs through Walsh’s new housing plan. It needs to end if the plan is to succeed.
Boston is now growing faster than at any time since the Great Depression. Walsh’s housing blueprint envisions the population reaching 700,000 by 2030. It’s a landmark figure, since Boston hasn’t had 700,000 residents since the 1950s. The city has been adding new residents so quickly lately that, if the current pace of growth keeps up, Boston could hit the 700,000 mark a decade sooner than the city’s housing plan anticipates.
But development hasn’t come close to catching up with the growth. And Boston is far behind what other cities are doing. Since 2010, Denver has built two-and-a-half times as many new housing units as Boston has, while Seattle has outbuilt us by three-and-a-half times. Even San Francisco, where housing woes are so acute that residents are demonstrating, has outrun the pace of housing construction here by thousands of units since 2010.
Walsh’s housing blueprint envisions Boston ratcheting up its pace of construction. It sets a goal of adding 53,000 new homes by 2030, with construction occurring across the income spectrum. Moving 16,000 undergraduates into on-campus housing, along with 2,500 graduate students, would free up another 5,000 neighborhood homes — many in Allston, Brighton, and the Fenway.
A group of architecture students at Northeastern is mocking up redevelopment schemes for Beacon Park Yard, the former CSX rail yard that lies between the campuses of Boston University and Harvard. The students’ work shows that, if all Boston did was replicate existing BU dorms across Beacon Park Yard, the city would be able to create 25,000 new dorm beds — thousands more than the target Walsh set this month.
The city obviously isn’t going to turn Beacon Park Yard into a student ghetto. But the Northeastern research speaks to the scale of what Boston housing plan is trying to tackle: If one vacant parcel in Allston could hold all dorm beds the city needs, with thousands of extras thrown in for good measure, then it shouldn’t be that hard to find other places for new dorms to go.
As tightly-packed as Boston is, it isn’t short on buildable land. But the city’s development politics don’t allow the city to take advantage of most of the free land it does have. The real issue is finding space unencumbered by crippling neighborhood politics.
Walsh’s housing plan doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It envisions more permissive zoning near transit stations. It’s receptive to bigger buildings, and buildings that don’t contain much parking. And it envisions making municipal approvals that should come easily actually come easily. Other cities, from Somerville to Chicago, have already tackled these issues, so Boston has recent successes to point to. But liberalizing development is a much bigger task in Boston than it is in a place like Chicago, because here, a deep resistance to change is baked into the way the city manages development.
Boston residents have become accustomed to City Hall subjecting new developments to narrow neighborhood politics; for the city, tough development fights have often been opportunities to extract goodies from developers. This dance was workable in Boston’s old slow-growth environment, but it isn’t anymore. Walsh won’t get close to his 53,000 new homes unless he recasts the politics of development. All the open land in the world won’t change that.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.