Boston has a housing affordability crisis, and a housing supply crisis. Most definitely, the two are related. Aware of this, a group of mayors in the metro area pledged this week to boost housing construction. Boston Magazine reports that the City of Boston and fourteen inner-ring suburbs agreed to form a regional task force focused on increasing housing supply to ensure availability and affordability by 2030. The communities plan to add 185,000 new units regionally to hit this target.
Yet Massachusetts communities are famously parochial, and, as I wrote a few weeks ago, commonly reject housing development through a public process which is broken and vulnerable to NIMBY strong-arming. Finding a way to add to housing supply by 2030 will be a strong political challenge. These mayors must be willing to make bold decisions and defend the need for new housing.
One step that several could take would be legalization of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) citywide. Simply put, ADUs are small-scale residential structures that can be built on an existing residential lot. There are a variety of advantages: such units are often cheap, and they serve as accommodations for elderly relatives. As Next City observes, various municipalities trying to liberalize their zoning codes to allow homeowners and landlords to build these units on their property. While displacement is sometimes a concern, with landlords removing existing units to make space for construction, allowing ADU construction in the suburbs would add to available housing. A by-right ADU regulatory scheme, limited to considerations of basic safety, would enable single-family zoned suburban neighborhoods to accommodate more residents. It’d also get around the common “neighborhood character” objection to new housing stock.
How does Greater Boston score in terms of allowing ADUs? Of the 15 municipalities whose mayors committed to building more housing, only Cambridge, Melrose, and Newton permitted such construction as of 2004. The other municipalities should act quickly to legalize construction of units under 1,000 square feet on existing residential lots, citywide. Property owners should be allowed to accept housing vouchers, unencumbered by community opposition. This will be more controversial, but if the situation truly is an emergency, these cities must act accordingly.
Another step would be to exempt eligible city-owned land from local zoning and parking requirements, and open it for development. If a large city parking lot is going underutilized, it should be considered eligible for housing development. Several of these cities are served by the local transit authority; parking requirements near transit could be scaled back as well.
It’s refreshing to hear city leaders acknowledge the dire circumstances surrounding housing affordability. Indeed, the task force has proposed acting on zoning to allow for easier ADU construction and reduced parking requirements. If Greater Boston is to retain the rich talent generated by its universities, and prevent displacement, it needs to build more housing.
Ethan Finlan is the content staffer for Market Urbanism Report, researching housing, transport, and public administration. He is originally from San Diego, and is now based outside of Boston.
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