Another study on the housing woes in Greater Boston is unlikely to cause much of a stir, even one issued by and organization with the cachet of Brookings Institute.
But a new Brookings–Boston Foundation report goes beyond bemoaning the sorry state of housing affordability in Boston and other similarly fast-growing cities around the country to propose a truly bold measure.
In fact, it’s one that could actually move the needle in the struggle to not just get more housing built, but also more moderately–priced condos and townhouses affordable for middle class buyers.
To date, efforts by a succession of Republican and Democratic governors in Massachusetts have focused on offering modest cash payments and other inducements to convince individual communities to lower their zoning barriers – and open their doors – to more housing.
But a group of researchers Brookings have proposed something completely different, calling for a statewide mandate that would allow duplexes, attached townhouses, condominiums and moderate-sized apartment buildings to be built as-of-right within a half mile of all transit stations.
In one fell stroke, that would eliminate the daunting, and sometimes near impossible, years-long slog through reels of local red tape facing developers looking to build more moderately-priced homes, especially in tony, high-priced suburbs like Wellesley, Winchester and Hingham.
Big Lots, Low Density
As report authors Jenny Schuetz and Sarah Crump of the Brookings Institution and Luc Shuster and Trevor Mattos of The Boston Foundation’s Boston Indicators research center, the neighborhoods around the train stations in these communities and many others are dominated by single-family homes.
As it stands now, a developer looking to build something a bit denser and more affordable near these transit hubs – say a few townhomes or 10 condos on a single lot – would likely need to spend years in endless hearings trying to rezone the site, with no guarantee of success,
Frankly, no one would bother trying, with the zoning hassles making only large apartment complexes – and the much bigger payback to investors they represent – the only feasible option.
But giving a green light to moderately dense housing around transit hubs, wherever they are in the state, could turn that picture around.
And it would inject some badly needed, and more moderately priced homes in upscale neighborhoods like Beverly Farms, Melrose’s Cedar Park, Needham Heights, and Wellesley Hills, all communities looked at by the Brookings study.
In both Beverly Farms on the North Shore, and out in Wellesley Hills in the western suburbs, single-family homes even near commuter rail stations sit on well over half an acre – relatively sizable lots given their quasi-urban setting, the report notes.
Flip the Development Script
Upzoning the land around commuter rail sites has the potential to turn the teardown concept on its head.
By opening the door to a bit more housing density around commuter rail stations. developers would have an incentive to buy tired, older homes and then replace them with two or three more condos or townhomes.
Dozens of new, single-family homes are still getting built each year in towns like Wellesley, Needham and Newton, but they bear little resemblance to the middle-class housing of years past, with overgrown McMansions rising on lots cleared of once solidly middle class ranches, Capes and colonials.
But with new, state-mandated zoning, lots now restricted to million-dollar homes “could easily accommodate five side-by-side townhouses, or more than 10 two-bedroom condos in low-rise multifamily buildings,” according to the Brookings policy paper.
While the typical single-family lot in Needham Heights is about half the size as Beverly Farms, a canny builder could still manage to squeeze in six condo, with even the smaller housing lots in Melrose Cedar Park still having enough room to fit more units on, the study finds.
Incrementalism Has Failed
The breadth and scope of what Brookings has proposed stands in stark contrast the myriad and drearily small-bore efforts by the past four governors – three moderate Republicans and one relatively liberal Democrat – to boost housing construction.
The centerpiece of this incremental approach is the state’s 40R program, which offers modest cash incentives to suburbs, towns and cities who rezone land around train stations for multifamily construction.
However well–meaning, these initiatives have been relatively narrowly targeted and modest in scope, and the results have been far from encouraging.
Housing prices in Greater Boston surged 53 percent from 2009 to 2020, even as construction of everything from apartments to condos and single-family homes failed to keep up with demand.
And as I noted earlier this year in this space, housing construction actually fell over the last decade – and fell significantly – all at a time when the Boston area became a net importer of highly paid tech and life sciences workers.
Small-bore solutions from state government aren’t cutting it anymore.
If anything, they are making things worse, creating the illusion of progress when the reality is ever more regression.
It’s time to start thinking big in order to tackle the housing crisis, and the Brookings report is a good place to start.
Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.