Housing needs to be the Boston City Council’s top priority
As pro-housing activists and planners, we worry that the Boston City Council and the city’s leadership have yet to take into account how much of our city is at stake if we do not make bold changes in housing now.
We need more rental opportunities for students and families. We need homeownership opportunities for new couples living and working in Boston and for single parents trying to stabilize the future of their children. We need the Boston City Council to help educate their counterparts in surrounding municipalities on the benefits of multi-family housing and accessory dwelling units (ADUs). Municipalities need a diverse housing stock to meet the needs of all their residents throughout various phases of their lives.
New housing units will provide homes for newcomers and long-time residents alike. Many young people cannot afford to live in the cities and towns where they grew up, and the opportunities for elderly residents to age in their communities are dwindling. Boston cannot do this work alone, but it can certainly lead the charge.
Nearly alone in the Northeast, the city of Boston has managed to permit housing at a decent clip since the beginning of the Walsh administration. By allowing more growth than cities such as San Francisco, we have so far been able to avoid a catastrophic rent spiral, but we have yet to bring rents down sustainably.
Our permitting numbers, however, are dwarfed by the scale of housing production in cities that have seen thriving economies and falling rents, such as Seattle and Portland. There, the rate of growth has been twice Boston’s in its best years, year after year. Historically, this is how cities thrived during booms: by building more housing and welcoming newcomers. Triple-deckers sprang up all over Boston in the two decades around the turn of the 20th century, making light of today’s changes. A century ago, we built housing for the masses, welcoming immigrants fleeing poverty, famine, and persecution overseas and within the United States. Today, zoning laws constrain our ability to build most of these housing types and welcome newcomers.
Building for the many and not the few is still possible today, provided the city allows it. We have seen a spate of proposals for 100 percent affordable housing on parcels of city-owned land in Dudley Square, enabled by flexibility on height and density requirements and limiting the amount of costly parking provided. These projects are unfortunately the exception and not the rule, due to the restrictions we have placed on housing growth in Boston’s wealthiest and highest-in-demand areas. It is no surprise that we build mostly luxury housing when costly permitting and appeals processes are needed to secure the right to build new housing. It would be a mistake to say these high-end units do no good — every resident in them is one who is not displacing a tenant in Roxbury. Rather, they are a missed opportunity, demonstrating how much needs to be done to bring rents down.
In addition, the city of Boston needs real zoning reform. We can do better at increasing predictability and bringing down construction costs, but we are not in this alone. The surrounding cities and towns that make up the Greater Boston region are not doing their fair share. We desperately need the state legislature to pass the governor’s Housing Choice bill, which will reduce the requirement for passing municipal zoning changes to a simple majority instead of two-thirds of a city council or town meeting.
Housing Choice is only the first step. We know that exclusionary, single-family zoning has an ugly, racist history. In the age of Trump, we will be complicit if we continue to throw up barriers for those hoping to move into opportunities providing the freedom that only stable housing can provide. Research shows that single-family zoning segregates people by race and class.
By preventing the construction of multi-family housing, local governments are exacerbating the housing shortage, driving up prices and keeping away newcomers — and it has reached crisis levels. Families are forced to move farther and farther away to find homes that they can afford, which means longer commutes, more traffic and more greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Boston City Council leadership needs to step up considerably and place housing as its top priority. The path has been blazed clearly by other cities, from Minneapolis, where triplexes are now allowed by right on every parcel, to Seattle, where dense apartments are routinely permitted, and in the state of Oregon where rent caps and statewide zoning reform were simultaneously introduced just this past year. It is our job to learn from their successes and apply them on the East Coast.
The city council must be a leader in bringing the entire Greater Boston region to solve our housing crisis collectively. We hope they will not let us down.
The authors are pro-housing activists with Abundant Housing MA, a statewide group hoping to launch in early 2020.