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DANTE RAMOS

It takes a ‘millennial’ village to get cheap housing in Boston

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/file

Micro-units have been proposed as a solution for Boston’s housing crisis.

By Globe Columnist 

The term “millennial village” conjures up funny images — think of a tiny hamlet where the natives live in thatched huts and communicate via Snapchat. But if a playful new name is what’s necessary to get cheap, compact housing built in Boston, then bring it on.

According to the Boston Foundation’s latest report card on the local housing market, high rents are surging even farther beyond the means of many working people, as a rebounding economy and an influx of 20-somethings and empty nesters alike have intensified the scramble for a limited housing stock.

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In response, lead author Barry Bluestone and his Northeastern University colleagues propose the construction of 10,000 units in “a new form we call millennial villages” — buildings where younger workers can live in close quarters and share living space and other amenities. In an interview, Bluestone mentions a Barcelona apartment building where six individual units have their own bathrooms and study areas but use the same living room and kitchen. Space for gyms and arts performances, he hopes, would make the facilities seem less like apartments and more like communities.

Promising, yes, but new? Not at all. At heart, “millennial villages” are a freshened-up version of rooming houses or adult dormitories — age-old forms of inexpensive, space-efficient housing. But because Boston and surrounding cities and towns discouraged such housing for so long, it can’t be built today without being rebranded first.

Communal living wouldn’t be the first downscale form of housing to re-enter the public debate under a fancier name. Before they became a hip planning trend, “micro-units” — also known in Boston as “innovation units” — were just tiny studios that don’t meet minimum-square-footage guidelines. As populations age in areas where single-family zoning prevails, there’s been a burst of interest in “ADUs” — the accessory dwelling units better known as granny flats and in-law suites. Local planners are abuzz about “workforce housing” — what Bostonians used to know as market-rate homes for people with modest incomes, a commodity that all but vanished amid rising prices and limits to new construction.

Yet while generations of policymakers and community activists have pushed hard for subsidized and price-restricted units, Boston has long been skeptical of housing that’s affordable because it’s cheap. The city had 35,000 rooms in lodging houses in the 1920s, city data indicate. By the late 1980s, the number of rooms had plunged to 3,000.

David Schleicher, a George Mason University law professor who studies urban economics and local government regulation, says that, across the country, progressive reformers, who considered poverty to be a disease, targeted rooming houses as a way to address it. “This is an insane position, if you think about it for two seconds,” Schleicher says, “but it didn’t seem that way at the time.”

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Allowing millennial villages may require not just changes to rules on minimum apartment size, but also some new thinking about which amenities an acceptable housing unit should include. In Boston, older suspicions about small-scale housing mesh with a ’60s-vintage aversion to making life easier, or projects more lucrative, for developers. It’s as if you’re allowed to build housing, but you’re not allowed to enjoy it.

Still, the tectonic plates may be shifting. The city’s official housing plan, says Department of Neighborhood Development Director Sheila Dillon, calls for 16,000 new college dorm beds, with the hope of releasing 5,000 off-campus units for use by non-students.

What Bluestone’s team proposes could complement these efforts, while taking advantage of a shift in younger residents’ preferences. The creature comforts that previous generations of recent college graduates once required — the vast music collection, those marked-up copies of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” — now exist in electronic form and take up no space whatsoever. And if millennials, or people of any age, want to squeeze their stuff into a new generation of safe, well-constructed communal housing, why shouldn’t the city encourage them?

In the end, it doesn’t matter what we call the buildings, as long as we let people put them up.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

Related:

Lawrence Harmon: The road to lower rents in Boston

Bruce A. Percelay: A practical approach to middle-market housing

George W. McCarthy and Harold Simon: Time to consider the middle ground of housing

Paul McMorrow: In a vacant lot, the story of Boston’s housing crunch