Suburbs stymie new housing growth

Report finds construction confined to small group of municipalities

A new report by the Boston Foundation confirmed what Boston area residents already know: There’s not enough housing in Greater Boston, and the housing is too expensive.

Luc Schuster, executive director of Boston Indicators, the Boston Foundation’s research center, said a big part of the problem is there are higher income suburbs, often built near commuter rail stations, that have been reluctant to build more housing, leaving the job to a handful of communities.

“The challenge is that it’s really a small subset of municipalities that are doing that new housing construction,” Schuster said. “It’s really predominantly metro core communities like Boston, Cambridge, Medford that are doing most of the construction.”

Schuster and Scott Van Voorhis, a Boston area reporter who writes the Contrarian Boston newsletter, appeared on The Codcast this week to talk about the Boston Foundation report and the challenges of meeting the region’s housing needs. The report uses a range of metrics, like vacancy rates and prices, to show that demand for housing in Greater Boston far outstrips supply. That results in homeowners and renters becoming overly burdened by costs.

Van Voorhis said the only solution may be for state officials to put more pressure on reluctant local communities – even pursuing policies like statewide rezoning, which allows certain types of building by right on any parcel of land. “I just think there needs to be a much tougher approach from the state to communities,” Van Voorhis said. “Maybe that’s not even politically possible because no governor wants to get into a feud with 200 towns and suburbs. But what we’re doing isn’t working.”

Van Voorhis said there are wealthier communities – including some in the MetroWest, South Shore, and North Shore regions – where the only type of development going on is tearing down older modest homes to build more expensive, larger homes.

One recent example of the housing debate is a newly passed policy that requires communities with MBTA access to create new zoning that would allow more housing units near the MBTA stops. Some communities have pushed back, saying allowing that density of housing would overwhelm their resources.

“In the town of Kingston, the town administrator threw out the idea, well, maybe if we just got rid of the T station, then we wouldn’t have to comply at all,” Van Voorhis said.

Schuster defended the law, saying it does not require all the units be built, but only that the zoning be put in place to authorize more multi-family homes. “We don’t have anything close to a free market in housing right now at all, because we’ve allowed very small municipalities to erect zoning rules that legally prohibit the construction of anything other than large single-family homes,” Schuster said. “MBTA communities upzoning is just saying you’d have more options for what you’d like to do with your land if the community adopted this new zone.

One of the report’s more striking findings relates to affordable and subsidized housing. The report says that in some cases, there is housing available, but people cannot find or access it. For example, in the summer of 2022 there were subsidized units available with no waiting lists in Kingston, Bellingham, Scituate, Plymouth, and Shrewsbury. The report says this is likely due to a lack of marketing and the lack of a central database for affordable housing units. Some places also have homes that are inaccessible by public transportation, so anyone without a car cannot live there.

The report suggests there may also be a racial dimension – the Kingston development was advertised in heavily white Barnstable and Falmouth, but not in the geographically closer but more racially diverse communities of Brockton and Randolph.

“We have such a piecemeal, hyperlocal approach both to market-rate housing construction and to subsidized housing construction that at best we’ve just created a maze for people to navigate,” Schuster said. “I think, at worst, some people without the best of intentions use that confusion of the system to make it very hard for people to know when there are openings for affordable housing lotteries.”

Schuster said historically, there have been racist elements to zoning codes and other public policies, like lending, that pushed Black and Latino families out of home ownership. In practice, he said, that still exists today based on income. Suburban zoning that only allows single-family homes on large lots and bans townhouses, duplexes, or triple deckers excludes Black and Latino families who statistically have lower incomes than White families.

Van Voorhis said some upper income towns have become “almost like private clubs where you have to spend $1 million to get entrance into it.”