New hopes for Boston housing

THE 12TH annual housing report card issued last month by The Boston Foundation contained a weary litany of familiar woes: supply down, rents up, subsidies slashed, prices soaring. Despite the region’s economic recovery, it said, housing costs have “steadily eroded the real standard of living for nearly all but the affluent.” Increasing numbers of Massachusetts homeowners are spending more than a third of their income on housing. For renters, it’s even worse.

Surprisingly, though, I feel optimistic about the region’s chronic housing problems for the first time in years. New administrations in Boston and at the State House have brought on leaders open to fresh ways of thinking. At a recent forum sponsored by the Boston Society of Architects (disclosure: I moderated the discussion) panelists were popping with solutions, particularly for so-called workforce housing — homes for people earning too much for government subsidies but not enough for the fast-growing crop of million-dollar condos downtown.


Boston scores well among US cities for meeting a threshold of 20 percent affordable housing. But “affordable” is a technical term for low-income units subsidized by the government or under special arrangement with developers; they are little help to a person making above the median income of $68,000. Boston already has a worrisome wealth gap, and many of the new homes on offer only exacerbate it: two-bedroom apartments in the Park Lane Seaport development, for example, start at $3,267. “If we don’t do something different,” said Devin Quirk, operations manager for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, “Boston will become a city of 20 percent low-income subsidized housing and 80 percent luxury housing.”

The answer is not simply to pump up the housing supply but to target growth in the vast middle, creating homes within the means of ordinary working people. Here are some ideas to get us there:


Lowering costs. The luxury condominium towers downtown aren’t nose-bleed expensive just because developers are greedy. The high costs of glass, steel, underground parking, and land explain why workforce housing — with rare exceptions — doesn’t compute in a new high-rise. Pushing down these cost factors makes the numbers work for developers, so attention is shifting to buildings of wood or brick, a maximum of six stories, in older neighborhoods from Somerville to Quincy, and with a ratio of less than one parking space per unit.

Another idea is to build on donated or discounted public land. Chrystal Kornegay, governor Charlie Baker’s new undersecretary for the department of housing and community development, says Baker’s first budget includes $1 million to help cities and towns prepare their surplus land – sometimes contaminated or with complex title issues – for housing. “It’s the kind of thing that if municipalities don’t do then the costs get passed on to the developer and everything gets more expensive,’’ she said.

Growth zones. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has identified two “growth zones” in the neighborhoods — with more to come — where construction requirements will be eased. One is between the Broadway and Andrew T stops in South Boston; the other is between Forest Hills and Jackson Square in Jamaica Plain. It’s no accident that these corridors are defined by transit stops. Officials expect that new housing in these zones will emphasize transit alternatives and allow for lower parking ratios.

Students. There are 28,000 students living off-campus in Boston alone. That’s at least 5,000 apartments that could otherwise be rented by working families at prices that aren’t artificially inflated when a bunch of undergrads jam into a three-bedroom in Mission Hill. Under prodding from Walsh, universities are accelerating dorm construction, and the number of undergraduates living off campus dropped by 6.4 percent last year. But now the administration is inviting private entities to propose building and managing student dorms. This would be a first for Boston.


Fixing the mismatch. Boston needs a variety of housing sizes to accommodate changing demographics. But even tiny “micro units” require their own bathrooms and kitchens, driving up prices. The Walsh administration just won a $1.3 million grant from the Bloomberg Foundation to create a housing innovation lab for new ideas. Here’s one: Experiment with single-room occupancy and co-housing developments with communal kitchens, not just for millennials but for the increasing numbers of residents over 65.

Architects, developers, and government officials agree that a new energy and focus on creative housing solutions is palpable. This week Sheila Dillon, director of Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development, uttered words you wouldn’t expect from a veteran housing expert. “Lately,” she said, “I’m kind of having fun.”

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.


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

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