Boston ups housing goal in face of population boom
Huge growth prompts city to revise production targets
BOSTON IS FACING a rate of population growth not seen in 100 years, an extraordinary influx that is prompting city officials to unveil new, more ambitious housing production goals to meet the soaring demand for new residential units.
Boston officials, in a plan to released on Wednesday, vow to add 16,000 more units to the city’s housing stock by 2030 than they pledged in a housing plan issued just four years ago.
In 2014, Mayor Marty Walsh rolled out a plan calling for 53,000 new units of housing to be built in Boston by 2030. However, officials say that was based on a projected growth by that year of the city’s population from 619,000 to 709,000. The new report projects that Boston’s population will actually be closer to 760,000 by 2030.
The city says permits have been issued for 27,000 new units, with 18,000 of them completed, but that’s not enough to relieve pressure on the market from a surge of new residents. The revised plan aims to have a total of 69,000 additional units built in Boston by 2030.
Nearly one in five units of the city’s housing stock are income-restricted affordable housing, and city officials vow to maintain that rate as they look to accelerate growth in housing construction.
City leaders also unveiled some new approaches to tackle the affordability crunch, including a goal of helping housing nonprofits and for-profit developers acquire 1,000 units of existing housing stock and converting it to deed-restricted affordability housing.
According to a report outlining the new housing goals, more than one in five non-student households in the city are “severely cost burdened,” which is defined as those paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing costs.
The city’s population grew by 40,000 from 2010 to 2016 – nearly as much as its growth over the prior 30 years – yet only enough new housing was built during that time to accommodate 26,800 people. “This scarcity in supply perpetuates low vacancy rates, and continues to put upward pressure on rents and sales prices,” says the report.
Walsh and city officials say the need for new housing is not limited to Boston, and they are urging a regional commitment to new housing construction. At Tuesday’s briefing they said the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group of 15 leaders of cities and towns in the Boston area, will announce regional goals next week for housing production, including a commitment to multi-family units.
“We’re very excited that the region recognizes the need for more multi-family housing,” said Sheila Dillon, Boston’s housing chief. “This is the first time this has ever happened.”
Boston is projected to grow by more than 142,000 residents from 2011 to 2030. That population of new residents would, if broken out on its own, constitute the fourth largest city in the state. It’s a population explosion that rivals the huge wave of immigration to the city in the early 20th century, said Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning & Development Agency.
The population surge is being driven, city officials said, by a combination of the region’s red-hot economy and a growing desire of those who work in the city to also live here. City officials said 39 percent of those who work in Boston now live in the city.
“Boston was seen as a back office city,” said Walsh, recalling the economic doldrums of the 1950s and 60s. “Now we’re seen as a headquarters city.”
Just being in the mix when it comes to decisions by big companies over where to locate is burnishing the city’s image and leading to more growth, said Golden, pointing to the current competition to land Amazon’s second headquarters. “Whether we land Amazon’s HQ2 or not, the constant chatter of Boston being the place to be because of its high standard of living, a high-quality skilled workforce just keeps having a snowball effect,” said Golden.
City officials acknowledged the challenge of building more housing outside the downtown area in neighborhoods where residents are often wary of new development. Walsh said the city has redoubled its efforts to include residents in planning discussions.
“It’s allowing people in the community to get comfortable with what exactly it is they want and what they want to see in their neighborhoods,” said Walsh.
Crucial to new housing growth, said Golden, is planning for the broader impact of population growth, particularly on transportation.
Two weeks ago, his agency launched a “mobility study” aimed at improving transportation issues facing Allston-Brighton, something that may be replicated in other neighborhoods across the city. “If we can solve for the problem of mobility — how do people get around effectively, efficiently with a minimum of frustration — we can mitigate the antipathy toward significant development,” said Golden. “People usually aren’t so concerned about the density of the residential structure. What they’re really concerned about is, is it affecting life on the street? How am I going to get to work. How am I going to walk, bike, or travel safely in a vehicle.”At its population peak in 1950, Boston was home to 800,000 residents. However, household sizes at that time were significantly larger than they are today, meaning fewer units were needed. “We’ve done 800,000. Can Boston accommodate a significant [population] increase?” asked Golden. “Absolutely. But we’ve got to be really aggressive and creative in how we develop that housing stock in a way that maintains a high quality of living.”
The new housing goals come on the heels of a national conference last weekend in Boston of a new movement pushing for aggressive housing construction in high-cost cities like Boston. The YIMBY conference – and its “yes in my backyard” message to development – took place alongside a gathering of Boston tenant advocates who met last Saturday to plan a campaign calling for new development to include a larger share of affordable housing units and more robust measures to prevent displacement of low-income renters.