Banker & Tradesman – Housing Innovation At The Local Level: Now Is The Time – 10/21/13

Housing Innovation at the Local Level: Now Is The Time

A Multifaceted Solution To Housing Issues

By Susan Gittelman, Special to Banker & Tradesman

As Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino gets ready to step down after 20 years of leadership, the city has issued a housing report, along with a commitment for his final months in office and a blueprint for his successor. Although the administration has taken political flak for trying to impose his will beyond his tenure, we commend the focus and effort.

First, any new administration will need time to develop deep experience working in most of the city’s neighborhoods. Second, time is of the essence as we experience the current positive economic cycle. And finally, particularly given the dismal environment in Washington and continuing reductions in resources, now is a great time to be seeding innovation at the local level.

Boston’s goal is to create 30,000 new units by 2020 to meet the robust and growing demand for housing. It is an ambitious plan, and it includes a framework for some immediate next steps. Across the Commonwealth, communities should consider its merits.

Boston identified some of the major drivers in high housing production costs, highlighting those that its policies could help ameliorate. Government can do little about the high cost of private land. But, for example, it can facilitate the growth of housing stock by simplifying and shortening lengthy and expensive (by national standards) permitting processes.

Barry Bluestone, founder of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, is already engaged in such further research, along with the real estate industry group NAIOP and the Urban Land Institute, even addressing the sensitive issue of the cost of union compared to nonunion labor in construction.

New Kinds Of Housing

Boston will continue to encourage creation of housing with small unit sizes, both apartments and condominiums, with little or no parking for residents. Although this initiative might require zoning code changes, these new unit types and patterns make city living considerably less costly and are welcomed by many of Boston’s younger new residents who utilize public transportation.

As Bluestone noted in the 11th annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, released this month by The Boston Foundation, in some respects Boston is in better shape than it has been, and this is true for both its wealthier residents and its poorest ones. “The real problem is everybody in between,” said Bluestone. Boston reported having a smaller proportion of middle class residents than the rest of the state and the nation. This situation is further exacerbated as the rate of housing prices here has been doubling compared to a tepid rate of income growth. The result is a huge strain on the existing housing stock.

The solution isn’t just new construction, because the cost of that almost always demands higher rents. Rather, the solutions must be multifaceted, including, for example, constructing new, smaller apartments and dormitories to house some of the city’s 27,000 off-campus students and a portion of its younger workers. These residents could relocate out of the old stock, which is often comprised of larger units that could accommodate middle-class families.

Boston also committed to creating an inventory of all government-owned real estate that would be suitable – if sold an developed – for middle-class housing. At Suffolk University’s recent “The Race for Living Space” panel discussion, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said that MassDOT and the MBTA are the second-largest proporty owners in the Commonwealth.

Studies take time; maybe a pilot study is in order. Why not just immediately identify 10 or 20 city-owned properties and put them out to bid?

A potential case study is in the works in Newton, where Mayor Setti Warren has taken action by putting a surface parking lot in Newtonville up for bid to be re-envisioned for mixed-use, transit-oriented housing. With B’nai B’rith Housing’s focus on the serious need for affordable housing, we hope to build 79 residences there. But, no matter who develops this site, Newton and the region wil benefit from the sale of underused property and from having new residents who will have easy access to shopping and public transportation.

The Boston study offers bread-and-butter solutions that are in our reach. Our vibrant economy, our ability to compete and our future depend on our region’s ability to produce more housing. It is vital that we move quickly.

Susan Gittelman is executive director of B’nai B’rith Housing, a nonprofit, nonsectarian developer and operator of affordable and mixed-income housing serving families and elders in communities of Greater Boston. BBH is currently working on developments in Sudbury and Newton.

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