Boston’s Next City Council Can Be a Leader in Massachusetts
Originally published as a special to Banker & Tradesman Nov. 10, 2019
With last week’s election, Boston had the opportunity to elect one of the most diverse councils in the city’s history. At the same time, the reality of the city’s failure to grapple with the housing crisis crept around every corner of every City Council candidate’s platform this election. As pro-housing activists and planners, we worry that the city’s leadership has 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.
Boston Once Built for Newcomers
Nearly alone in the Northeast, the city of Boston has managed to permit housing at a decent clip since the beginning of Mayor Marty Walsh’s 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.
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.
Historically, this is how cities thrived during booms: by building more housing and welcoming newcomers. Triple–deckers sprung 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 possible today, provided the city allows it. We have seen a spate of proposals for 100 percent affordable housing on parcels on city-owned land of 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 around 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 not displacing a tenant in Roxbury. Rather, they are a missed opportunity, demonstrating how much needs to be done to bring rents down.
What the Council Can Do
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 Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, which will reduce the requirement for passing municipal zoning changes to a simple majority instead of two-thirds of city council or town meeting.
The Housing Choice legislation 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 in this legacy if we continue to throw up barriers for those hoping to move into opportunities that provide the freedom that only stable housing can provide. Research shows that restricting multi-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 from their jobs to find homes that they can afford, which means longer commutes, more traffic and more greenhouse-gas emissions.
The next Boston City Council needs to step up considerably on these issues. The path has been clearly blazed by cities from Minneapolis, where triplexes are now allowed by right on every parcel, to Seattle, where dense apartments are routinely permitted in residential areas, 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.
It would be foolish to squander a historical (bio)technology boom by passing on wage increases to landlords and homeowners by blocking growth. The City Council can be a leader in bringing the entire Greater Boston region together to solve our housing crisis collectively. We hope they will not let us down.