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Ideas for solving Boston’s housing shortage, explained

Officials, activists, and others have embraced varying ideas—with varying degrees of success—to address what everyone agrees is a crisis in supply


A major housing crunch gnaws at the Boston region, with consistently high demand exacerbating the effects of perennially low supply. This helps keep prices and rents among the most expensive in the United States, and contributes to the displacement and eviction of longtime residents.

And, while it might all seem insurmountable, there are myriad ways that the public sector and private industry are approaching the situation. Here are 10.

Regional cooperation. Nearly 18 months ago, a coalition of 15 Boston-area mayors announced a much-ballyhooed commitment to facilitating the construction of 185,000 new housing units by 2030.

What’s more, the coalition—which included the mayors of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Newton—committed to backing a wide variety of housing within that 185,000, from units designated as affordable to ones with services for people with special needs to housing for those with moderate incomes by Boston-area standards.

Zoning/rezoning. Zoning and rezoning have taken center stage in this regional effort to add housing. A December overhaul in Somerville, designed to facilitate everything from denser construction around transit stops to tiny houses in backyards, is an excellent example of what sorts of changes officials and residents have in mind.

It’s also an excellent example of how long in coming most of these zoning changes are or would be. Somerville’s zoning hadn’t been overhauled since 1990—perspective: Barack Obama lived in Somerville in 1990).

Newton and Arlington are also considering zoning changes to facilitate taller, denser buildings. Though, of course, these and other such initiatives are not without controversy, and final iterations are far from clear.

Then there’s Gov. Charlie Baker’s pending housing bill, which would make it easier for individual Massachusetts municipalities to alter zoning regs. It’s these regs—and the fact that each of the region’s dozens of municipalities has its own regs—that have held back at lot of the multifamily development necessary for increasing supply.

Empty bleachers facing the empty curve of a horse-racing track. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Infill. Officials and industry are targeting parcels large and small upon which to sprout housing. Think the 20-acre Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester-South Boston or the 161-acre former Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston-Revere. Or the hundreds of—albeit much smaller—vacant parcels in Roxbury.

It seems increasingly unlikely that any big site around the region that lays fallow for any significant stretch of time—or one that loses its primary function to another location, like with what happened with the Boston Flower Exchange in the South End—will escape redevelopment, often with housing included.

Garage conversions and surface parking lot redevelopments. Boston leads major U.S. cities in the first trend and is probably in the lead in the second.

It’s not just that the city in recent years has been green-lighting proposal after proposal to redevelop garages. It’s that there are so few new ones going up—and, when they are going up, they are invariably part of larger mixed-use complexes that include housing.

As for the surface lots, it’s a combination of the sheer value of the properties to their owners in a booming Boston real estate market and the fact that so many are located in prime areas such as Fort Point, Dorchester, Bay Village, and Back Bay.

Designated affordable housing. Most housing developments in the Boston region have to set aside a share of their units—or create such units elsewhere—that are affordable to those who meet certain income requirements.

Boston is amping up the share of units that most private developers would have to include to build in the city. Meanwhile, other cities, in particular Cambridge, are considering ways to do the same through their own changes.

Private dorms. Anything that takes more students out of the general population helps ease the regional housing market’s congestion.

And more of its dozens of colleges and universities are partnering with developers and operators to add privately owned and managed dorms to their housing stocks (though that has sparked a debate on equity on campuses).

More dorms, period. Several new dormitories have gone up—especially in Boston proper—during the past few years, often at governmental prompting. See above for why that’s a good thing for the housing market.

Co-living. At the start of 2019, co-living—wherein residents pay for not only shared or especially tiny living quarters but for a suite of amenities and activities—was barely a blip in the Boston-area residential market. A year later, it was a going concern.

Co-living’s ideal resident appears to be a single person who needs only a place to crash and the odd accoutrement. As it grows then, the trend might draw such residents out of larger apartments that families with kids can lease. Family-size units are apparently in short supply in the regional market as of 2020.

Glassy condo buildings on the waterfront. Shutterstock

Surcharges on more expensive sales. The Boston City Council in December passed legislation that would tax up to 2 percent many commercial and residential real estate sales of at least $2 million. It still needs state legislative approval though.

Proponents say the change will raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually for housing programs and efforts, including construction.

Rent control. Massachusetts voters narrowly tossed rent control in 1994. The immediate result was a spike in rents and evictions in the Boston area; and nowhere near the new construction that many proponents of repeal said would come with the end of rent control.

There is as of early 2020 an ongoing movement on Beacon Hill and elsewhere to bring back rent control, or at least to restore to municipalities the power to do so. And while it might seem a bit too blue sky right now—Gov. Baker is no fan—rent control’s reemergence 25 years on speaks to just how far officials, activists, and others are prepared to go to alleviate the Boston area’s housing crunch.

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