fb-pixel
Renée Loth

Charlie Baker’s housing jiujitsu

Shutterstock/whitehoune/whitehoune

A truth observed by Will Rogers in the 1930s about land – that “they aren’t making any more of it” – has long bedeviled advocates who want to boost the supply of housing in older states like Massachusetts, which are already largely developed. But this week the Baker administration announced the municipal equivalent of loaves and fishes: in effect, multiplying the land. At the Innes housing project in Chelsea, a state subsidized development, Governor Baker described a plan to renovate 96 existing public units and add 224 units of market rate housing mixed in. A similar proposal at the Clarendon Hill apartments in Somerville will produce 526 units of mixed-income housing where there are now 216 subsidized units — essentially doubling or tripling the density of housing without requiring any new land.

Standing in a leafy corner before the squat brick project, built in 1950, Baker said that the same hot real estate market that is making housing unaffordable around Boston also creates opportunities. “There’s a little bit of jiujitsu involved,” he said. The idea is to use the momentum of rising property values — and the short supply of land — to entice private market financing for developments in otherwise neglected communities.

The plan hits many of Baker’s favorite notes: It leverages private money to improve a deteriorating public asset; it gives a boost to a so-called Gateway City, which Baker has identified as a development priority; it takes advantage of a new Silver Line stop that will open next year just blocks away; it engages in a bit of social tinkering by mixing income classes; and it doesn’t cost the state a lot. Indeed, one of Baker’s housing aides described it as “Charlie Bingo.”

The state will provide just $600,000 in planning grants for the two projects, for early design and legal work, environmental assessments, and relocating the existing tenants (all of whom will have the option to move back in). Private developers — Joseph J. Corcoran Co. in Chelsea; Gate Residential in Somerville, and their partners — will finance the rest. (Elsewhere in the state, where markets are weaker, the administration has offered more substantial direct aid.)

Advertisement



At the announcement, Joe Corcoran said his involvement in the Chelsea project is inspired by Columbia Point’s redevelopment in Dorchester, which his father pioneered in 1983. That mixed-income venture took a deteriorating, crime-plagued warren and transformed it into a desirable swan.

While not a panacea for poverty, studies do find that children who grow up in mixed-income housing have better prospects than those isolated in public projects. At a minimum, they benefit from safer and upgraded surroundings. “There’s this concept of social capital,” said Jay Ash, state secretary of housing and economic development. “People get to know each other across income ranges. Just sharing stories improves the community.” Ash was previously Chelsea city manager, and he clearly reveled in being able to bring state attention to a property where he once lived just across the street.

Advertisement



Creating new housing by augmenting existing infrastructure is an emerging trend. Communities strapped for space are beginning to change zoning so that new units can be built above retail or industrial properties, as so-called “granny flats” in the suburbs, or can be developed in re-purposed stock — aging mills, yes, but also civic buildings such as libraries, schools, and railroad stations. Developers in hot markets have to seek out opportunities in unlikely places. “We’re looking for the hole in the donut,” said Brett Sherman of SunCal, one of Corcoran’s development partners.

A recent report by the Urban Land Institute found that greater Boston will require 108,000 new units of workforce housing just to keep pace with current demand. Baker will need to pull off many more such feats in order to house the multitudes.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.