By Gail Spector
Meeting the housing needs of millennials, seniors and working families in the Greater Boston area will require aggressive, concerted action that includes “unique and unconventional” steps, according to Barry Bluestone, founding Director of Northeastern’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.
“We have housing that doesn’t match the needs of the two demographics that will grow the fastest – young millennials and aging baby boomers,” Bluestone said, adding that the Greater Boston area needs about 106,000 more units for single people, 105,000 for small families and 20,000 for four or more person dwellings.
Bluestone, co-author of the Greater Boston Housing Report Card and founding Dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern, addressed business and government leaders at the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber’s annual Spring Business Breakfast on May 17.
“We have a booming economy, we’re now retraining workers instead of them leaving the area and we’re attracting many more [workers],” Bluestone said. “But the housing stock has not kept up with the demand. Those people who can not afford to stay in Boston – not the poor, not the rich, but working families – are moving further and further out, beyond Newton and way out into places like Lawrence.”
As families try to find affordable places to live, the pressure outside the core Greater Boston area increases. Even 40 or 50 miles out, prices are at $365,000 and are increasing at rates faster than Newton’s or Wellesley’s, he said.
Describing the solution to the area’s housing dilemma as playing “housing jiu jitsu,” Bluestone stressed the importance of understanding the evolving demographics of the area, generating ideas for the types of housing these populations need and prefer, and creating new housing opportunities that would ultimately allow older housing stock to be repurposed for working families.
In the Greater Boston area, where housing stock is growing too slowly to meet the demands of a booming economy, prices and rents have risen well above the increase in average income.
As a result, families in search of housing they can afford are moving farther from Greater Boston’s inner core. This trend both pushes up prices in traditionally lower-priced communities and adds to the region’s transportation problems.
The only solution, Bluestone said, is to “find a way for housing supply to complement housing demand.”
As an example, Bluestone pointed to triple-deckers as traditional housing for working families. Since 2009, the annual median price for apartments in two- and three-family houses in the five county Greater Boston region has risen 127 percent, four times faster than the price for single-family houses.
“There is virtually no doubt that skyrocketing triple-decker prices are due to the extraordinarily high demand for these units by graduate students, medical interns and residents, and other young professionals who can afford high rents by living with roommates, making this type of property extremely valuable as an investment asset … and increasingly out of the price and rent range of working families,” Bluestone said.
With all of the net growth in population through 2030 projected to come from millennials and seniors, there will be a large increase in demand for smaller housing units.
The solution or housing jiu jitsu, Bluestone said, is to create 21st century villages that are attractive to different demographics.
First, by providing new housing opportunities for millennials, a substantial number of units in triple-deckers and duplexes could be freed up for working families in the inner core of Greater Boston. And, by providing new housing opportunities for aging baby boomers who currently live in larger suburban homes, existing suburban housing can become available for working families.
The “housing we need for tomorrow” contains a diverse array of units ranging from micro apartments to studios and multi-bedrooms for graduate students, medical students and other millennials and for aging baby boomers. Ideally, developments would include common shared space like lounges, music practice rooms, study spaces and offices. Retail establishments such as grocery stores, dry cleaners and coffee shops would occupy ground floors and a roof garden could be available for parties. While developments should be located near public transportation, they should also include parking for zip cars and bicycles. Finally, they would include storage lockers in the basements for tenants.
Building 21st century villages is a multi-pronged effort requiring the collaboration of private developers, quasi-public and commercial lenders, universities and teaching hospitals, architects and construction firms, unionized building trades, and municipal and state governments, Bluestone said.
To make 21st century villages possible, municipal governments must reform zoning regulations to allow higher density development and smaller unit sizes, and reduce or eliminate parking requirements that assume that most or all residents have private automobiles. Because the community would benefit from the construction of the units, cities and towns should also make surplus municipal land available for construction at reduced costs.
Presenting a ten-step action program, Bluestone said that 21st century villages should be produced by both for-profit and non-profit private developers who would agree to rental rates that provide them a “reasonable, but not excessive, return on their investments.”
Such units could vary in affordability for low-income graduate students to the more financially secure student, young professional or senior.
Bluestone said that a coordinated effort on the 21st century village plan would help meet the housing needs of the Greater Boston area and help maintain the Commonwealth’s prosperity.
While Boston has a done a good job of issuing new building permits, the suburbs have reduced the number of permits, Bluestone added. “This is a community wide issue in which we need to have all communities join the larger core of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville.”