Boston’s housing crunch: 10 solutions either under consideration or underway

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The Boston region faces a major housing crunch, with perennially low supply and consistently high demand. This helps keep prices and rents among the highest 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. In October 2018, a coalition of 15 Boston-area mayors announced a 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. There are major zoning and rezoning initiatives underway in the region, particularly in Somerville and Cambridge, neighboring cities that include nearly 200,000 residents and some of the highest rents and prices in the region.

Both initiatives are meant to facilitate more multifamily housing as well as affordable housing, particularly around busier areas and transit stops, and to adjust sometimes antiquated rules to the new reality of just how in demand housing is in the Boston region. Somerville’s zoning hasn’t been overhauled like this 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.

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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 in East Boston-Revere. Or the more than 1,000—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. Boston leads major U.S. cities in this trend. It’s not just that the city has been green-lighting proposal after proposal to redevelop the 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.

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.

Now, Boston is considering amping up the share of units that most private developers would have to include to build in the city. Meanwhile, Cambridge is looking at rewarding developers of entirely affordable projects with the ability to build more densely and higher in certain neighborhoods.

Apartment-sharing regulations. Some 1.2 million people stayed in Airbnb rentals in Massachusetts in 2018, according to the apartment-sharing giant.

Some say such arrangements take off the market units that would otherwise go toward satisfying the region’s demand for housing, though it’s debatable how deleterious these shares are on real estate costs.

The Boston region might find out, though. State regulations governing many home-shares are due to take effect in July. They’re aimed at curbing what are essentially illegal hotels. But they could have the effect of opening up that much more housing supply.

Private dorms/Co-living. The latter is in wider use among local universities and colleges, though not independent of those institutions (but that might change). The former is not much of a presence in the Boston area. That, too, though, could change.

Anything that takes more students out of the general population helps ease the congestion in the regional housing market.

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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.

Surcharge on more expensive sales. The Boston City Council is considering legislation that would tax up to 6 percent many commercial and residential real estate sales of at least $2 million and tax some properties sold twice within two years—a.k.a. flipping—as much as 25 percent.

Proponents say the changes would curb speculation in the Boston real estate market and would raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually for housing programs and efforts, including construction. The bill’s fate is far from certain, though, as it lacks crucial support at the state level and from Mayor Marty Walsh.

Rent control. Massachusetts voters narrowly tossed rent control in 1994, but the idea of caps on increases has gathered steam of late on Beacon Hill (though it has nothing to do with boosting supply).

And while it might seem a bit too blue sky right now—Governor Charlie Baker signaled his disapproval March 26—rent control’s very 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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