Growing pains

A long about June, the “housing bubble” became big news nationally. In the same week, a cover story in Time (HOME $WEET HOME) focused attention on the “blistering” US real estate market and a New York Times Week in Review piece took the story global, noting the run-up of housing prices in coastal cities and tourist hubs (like Boston) around the world, inflated by competition among the affluent and fueled by low interest rates. The new concern is not about affordability but about the economy. If it’s a bubble, will it burst? And if it does, what will happen to an economy driven by the (paper) worth of homeowners who are overextended on mortgages that are looking increasingly risky?

None of this comes as news to us in the Bay State. The sky-high and ever-rising cost of housing in eastern Massachusetts, a phenomenon spreading from Boston ever outward, has been a central concern in the state – and here at MassINC – for years now. Homeownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream, and rising real estate prices are putting that piece of the dream increasingly out of reach for many families. The cost of housing has also become an economic development issue, as business expansion in a range of industries is threatened by the difficulty of recruiting skilled labor, professional and otherwise, to an unaffordable real estate market.

These are reasons enough for concern. But housing prices are intertwined with all sorts of questions about how our state manages – or doesn’t manage – growth and development. Our 2003 survey, The Pursuit of Happiness, pointed not only to affordability of housing but also roads and traffic (above the availability of good paying jobs) as sources of dissatisfaction and worry for Massachusetts residents.

In some ways, little seems to have changed since Michael Jonas’s “Anti-family values” (CW, Spring ’02). As Jonas reported, towns have little incentive to zone for starter homes to attract young families and their kids. Generating more property taxes and sending fewer children to school, higher-end houses on large lots look better on the municipal balance sheet. Last year, the state began offering one-time funding for “smart growth” development – more densely packed housing in city and town centers around existing means of transportation – but that does not seem to have been enough to counteract local opposition to housing construction, at least not yet.

“It’s almost as if children are toxic,” Secretary of Commonwealth Development Doug Foy told lawmakers at a hearing this spring. There is now talk on Beacon Hill of combining smart-growth incentives with additional education aid – just as envisioned by the Commonwealth Housing Task Force, a coalition of leaders convened by the Boston Foundation – to offset local concerns about the costs of middle-class family housing. Whether even richer carrots will overcome home rule traditions, opaque zoning regulations, and our historic village sensibilities remains to be seen.

But housing is just one of the variables families consider when deciding where to live. Our research into commuting patterns, Mass.Commuting, suggests that many families have chosen to live farther away from their place of work in order to get the basket of goods they seek. Indeed, the number of long commuters – those who spend at least an hour and half commuting each day – has doubled since 1980. That’s time lost from family, friends, and community.

A series of maps we have published in conjunction with the Boston Globe’s Ideas section underscores these trends. With maps on housing affordability, the ratio of older to younger residents, commuting distance, and town population growth, CommonWealth associate editor Robert David Sullivan and MassINC research associate Greg Leiserson have shown the middle-class frontier – the towns where young families are choosing to live – moving ever farther out from Boston, past the I-495 belt and into formerly rural communities. Even with minimal population growth – not to mention an estimated decline last year – Massachusetts is gobbling up land, clogging roads and highways, and burdening families with staggering amounts of mortgage debt. Can’t we do better?

Meet the Author
CommonWealth will be diving into these issues in the coming year. The editors are beginning work on a special extra issue – the third in our history – on growth and development in Massachusetts. With the backing of more than two dozen sponsors ranging from the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and major environmental foundations to the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties and the Homebuilders Association of Massachusetts, CommonWealth will give extensive coverage to the daunting challenges of growth and development in early 2006 just as it did health care in 2004 and education reform in 2002. How our state grapples with its growing pains now will have an impact for generations to come.

   Ian Bowles