The Housing Choice bill is now law. It takes effect as pandemic induced changes around work, office space and commuting could accelerate other changes in suburban housing markets. That makes Housing Choice a good starting point for new economic growth in the suburbs, but that also creates new pressure on some cities and towns. Areas that attract new residential growth will thrive while other areas may struggle to maintain their services, property values and character.
To broaden growth, the state and municipalities will have to look beyond housing. Competition for talent and younger people will mean an emphasis on creating more interesting neighborhoods than traditional suburban large–lot zoning allows. Creating those places and producing the housing needed for growth will require more help for suburban municipalities with resource management of water, wastewater and land-use. These challenges, as much as housing supply, may decide the new municipal winners and losers in the post-pandemic economy.
Housing Choice sought to include the suburbs in meeting the state’s need to address rising housing costs and inadequate housing supply, particularly in multi-family housing. As the heads of a bank that has a long history of promoting healthy communities and economic opportunity and a regional suburban chamber of commerce, we had a different take on Housing Choice. We saw it being more than bedrooms; it was about economic development for the suburbs.
Pandemic Brings New Patterns
The old path of suburban growth was often a simple formula related to proximity to a city. As housing prices rose, new homeowners moved further out. It was a trade-off between the family budget and housing preference versus personal endurance for commuting. This formula has slowly been changing as people find greater flexibility with how they work.
Post-pandemic work habits may accelerate this change, along with some companies that will be looking for suburban office locations. Even small adjustments to the number of days people need to report to the office or when they commute will reduce the physical and emotional costs of commuting. This allows more room on the other side of the equation for wider choices in location and type of housing.
This can help suburban communities draw younger people and keep talented Baby Boomers who are also looking for different housing options. These are the consumers needed to support local storefront business, the workforce to attract new businesses and the economic drivers that will help expand tax bases to support local government. We do not expect it to lead to large–scale shifts away from cities, but it might be enough to spark new economic growth in communities where small projects can produce big changes.
A South Shore Showcase
The focus of Housing Choice, along with another $50 million initiative for transit–oriented developments, is on multifamily or more compact neighborhood development near centers of activities. These areas include downtowns, mass-transit stops or in repurposing commercial areas such as old office parks or retail malls. It is the type of housing more young people and working baby boomers are looking for. It was the housing many communities spent decades trying to block. Now it is the housing those communities may need to survive and thrive.
The South Shore is becoming a showcase of examples of how this can be done in smart ways by strengthening cities and towns. They are good reminders that fixing our housing shortage does not have to be a single grand plan. Many small projects add up to make a community, region and state stronger.
The South Shore Chamber of Commerce is starting a third year of a regional effort to increase and diversify the housing options in the region. The effort has been funded by The Massachusetts Housing Partnership and Rockland Trust Co., with additional support from some other leading businesses in the area such as Cape Cod Lumber, Sullivan Tire and Fireking Baking Co. We can see the early success of housing as an economic strategy.
This is not limited to Quincy which has successfully embraced housing as a path to success. We are seeing it in individual projects such as Weymouth/Braintree Landing and Hingham Shipyard built around mass-transit. The old Hanover Mall and Colony Place in Plymouth are mixing housing with retail. Pinehills and Redbrook in Plymouth and Union Point in Weymouth are large residential communities with smart land-use practices.
Creating interesting neighborhoods with some energy and market appeal is not just about residential zoning. It includes smarter resource management. Congratulations to Gov. Charlie Baker and the state legislature on some positive steps on housing. We have more to do and business needs to stay focused on the smart solutions.
Christopher Oddleifson is the CEO of Rockland Trust Co. Peter Forman is president of the South Shore Chamber of Commerce.