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Can Boston build a way out of the housing crisis?

Walsh focuses on building enough units to soften demand, others call for new tactics

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Can Boston build a way out of the housing crisis?
Mayor Martin Walsh offers remarks during the ground breaking for Olmsted Green on the site of the former Boston State Hospital. (Photo: Mayor’s Office photo by Jeremiah Robinson)

There’s little dispute that Boston faces a housing crisis with rents and housing prices beyond the reach of many of the city’s current residents. Mayor Martin Walsh has been pursuing a strategy of increasing housing production to meet growing need, while City Councilor Tito Jackson, who is challenging Walsh for the mayor’s office, says the city’s strategy falls short of meeting the growing demand for affordable options.

The problem

The problems are many: the city’s population is growing, pushing up rents and the cost of homes. Well-heeled professionals flock to the city, snapping up units. Longtime residents who cannot keep up with rising rents are pushed out. Students spill out into neighborhoods where they pay per head, driving up rents in Mission Hill, Allston and, increasingly, Roxbury. Luxury buildings proliferate in the city, sparking fears among some tenants as they see rents rise at a faster pace than wages.

According to the city’s recently released Imagine Boston report, more than 21 percent of the city’s renters spend over half their income on housing. At any given time, roughly 40,000 residents are on the waitlist for Section 8 public housing, according to Imagine Boston. Moreover, citywide median housing costs rose by 36 percent between 2010 — the end of the Great Recession — and 2015, and by even more in some outer neighborhoods. Housing costs shot up 38 percent in Dorchester, 43 percent in Chinatown, 50 percent in Mattapan and 70 percent in Roxbury, states the report.

Building a way out

In 2014, Mayor Walsh’s administration highlighted the need to tackle rising housing costs and demand, with the release of its Housing a Changing City report, which stated plans to increase overall housing stock by 2030. To date, the administration’s main strategy remains constructing enough units — both affordable and market-rate — that demand slackens and prices dip.

Thus far, there are hints of success — between 2014 and 2016, 12,001 new units of housing were created in Boston as a whole, answered by a decline of rents in by 4 percent on citywide average between 2014-2015, according to city data. Individual neighborhoods have experienced different levels of rent changes.

In an August NorthEndWaterfront.com column, Walsh wrote that his administration facilitated completion of 13,000 units thus far, of which about 1,380 are affordable and 2,000 are restricted to prices attainable by middle-income households.

Initiatives and receptions

To underpin its build-our-way-out strategy, the Walsh administration inventoried public land and identified those viable for housing development. In many neighborhoods, the administration increased the amount of off-site affordable housing that private firms must create if they build on city-owned land or seek zoning exemptions, as well as increased the alternative requirement pay-out amounts, under its updates to the inclusionary development policy. Thus far, less than 1 percent of affordable units constructed by developers since that policy’s creation in 2000 have been in Roxbury, but with developers increasingly eyeing Roxbury, that could change. In a Banner phone interview, Tito Jackson asserted that, if elected, he would sharply increase affordable on-site unit count requirements and that Cambridge has successfully done so without deterring developers.

Under another Walsh administration initiative, the density bonus pilot program, participating developers were encouraged to build additional affordable units in exchange for permission to build above height limits imposed by zoning. However, Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, told the Banner in July that the city should be more cautious about handing out zoning exemptions, given that zoning rules are one of the most direct ways for communities to have a say in how their neighborhood gets built and changed.

Some developers seek to bring greater density — and thus greater housing supply — by using more land for units and less for parking. However, public response has been mixed. Some praise public transit-oriented development as environmental, healthier and necessary, given the limited ability of city streets to absorb more vehicles. Meanwhile, others say the city has not yet provided sufficient transit alternatives to make it feasible to sacrifice cars, thus ensuring clogged streets as residents in these low-parking developments and their visitors scramble for scarce parking spots. Joyce Stanley, executive director of Dudley Square Main Streets, told the Banner in May that while residents need a mix of transit options, businesses in the area remain reliant on customers arriving by car and suffer when they cannot park.

PLAN JP/Rox tensions

Not all efforts have been smooth sailing. This March, tensions soared over the Plan JP/Rox initiative, which created a vision guiding the next 15 years of development in the triangular area bounded by Jackson Square, Egleston Square and Forest Hills. The plan was approved over opposition from community activists who protested for several days and alleged that the plan fails to include the depth and amount of affordable housing necessary to prevent displacement. In July, Walsh said the final affordability requirements — which were slammed by activists as being too mild — were so steep it was scaring off developers. Even if a developer would bid, none could move forward yet, as the zoning commission has yet to approve certain plan pieces.

What’s in ‘affordable’

Mayoral challenger Tito Jackson is among those who says that production has gone awry, with new luxury condo buildings purchased as financial speculation tools, not housing. In one example, buyers from Greece, Hong Kong and the Middle East have swooped in to claim dozens of condos in Millennium Partners’ tower.

“It’s unsustainable to continue to build $2 million and $3 million condos all over the city of Boston that no one is actually occupying as owners,” Jackson said during a July JP Progressive forum. “In the Millennium Tower — only 20 percent of the units in that building are taking homestead, or are owner occupied. These buildings in many ways are not housing, they’re actually investment vehicles for uber-rich people all over the world, and that is unacceptable.”

Too much housing remains for the top-earners, he added in a recent Banner conversation.

“The build-it-and-they-will-come mentality is flawed, short-sighted, and pours gasoline on the fire of gentrification,” Jackson told the Banner. “87 percent of housing in Boston is being built for the top 25 percent of earners.”

Furthermore, he says, the flurry of recent development can push people out even when that development is marked as “affordable.” Jackson is not alone in contesting that the city’s definition of affordable is beyond the actual means of residents in many neighborhoods. He asserts that about half of Bostonians make $35,000 or less, and that meanwhile, many of the city’s programs count a unit as affordable if it is available to those making about $103,000. He says the definitions of affordability should be tailored to Boston neighborhoods, instead of relying on federally-calculated figures.

Walsh, however, told the Banner, “Luxury housing isn’t putting pressure on the market.”

Walsh said that the city needs to continue to provide housing for newcomers in order to be competitive. He also told the Banner the city is exhausting all options.

“We have been setting records in 2014, ‘15, ‘16 and we set one in 2017 for low-income housing starts. We are getting more permits out now than ever before as far as building housing. I don’t know how much more we can do,” Walsh said.

Rental support

During a WBUR interview, Jackson proposed offering city-backed housing vouchers, supplementing the federal-backed Section 8 vouchers. Local officials have expressed concerns that the Trump administration may slash federal housing funding.

At the July 20 JP Progressives forum, Walsh said he doesn’t believe that rent control or subsidy will solve the housing crisis: “Our population is growing. If we to continue to grow as a city, we have to put more housing stock on the market,” Walsh said. “I think a subsidy or stabilization of rents is not the answer because the problem will still exist.”

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