The Solution to Boston's Affordable Housing Crisis

The Greater Boston area has been experiencing an affordable housing shortage, which is being termed by many as a “housing crisis.” The demand for affordable multi-family housing dramatically outweighs the supply, which is driving prices up and forcing low income residents out.

According to Mass.gov, the Baker-Polito Administration has identified inadequate housing production as one of the core challenges facing the Commonwealth’s families and economy.   The Commonwealth must build more diverse housing options to support our growing economy and provide our ever-changing population with affordable housing choices. 

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Local Obstacles to Development Contribute to the Crisis

Although the City of Boston recognizes the need for increased housing production, local zoning often restricts density (maximizing units on a site) despite the desire of regional governments to increase production of housing and developers’ desire to build more units.  The mayor’s Housing Boston 2030 plan sets a goal for 69,000 new units of housing by 2030. The Baker-Polito Administration also recognizes the need and has put forward the “Housing Choice Initiative”, which is legislation aimed at providing incentives for Boston area municipalities to encourage housing production.

Developers are on board; due to the high cost of real estate in the Boston area, a certain level of density is required to realize a reasonable return on investment, so developers want to build as many units as are allowed by zoning. That is often the limiting factor, however. In Massachusetts, municipalities’ control over zoning regulations and local objections to apartment or condo developments (density, traffic, and height are often cited) over time have lead to restrictive zoning that encourages, in many cases, only single family residences. This lack of density and housing diversity in the Greater Boston area contributes to the housing crisis and increases the housing disparity.

So, what is the best approach for a development to maximize units while contending with local zoning?

1.  Creative Zoning Solutions

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Take advantage of creative solutions and avenues for flexibility in zoning. The City of Boston is leading the way with initiatives such as the Compact Living Pilot. This program supports higher density and increased unit counts by allowing smaller-than-typical units and reductions in parking space requirements for transit oriented developments. Smaller units are offset by a requirement for more shared amenity spaces, such as communal kitchens, lounges and outdoor gathering spaces.

2.  Location, Location, Location…

Choose your location wisely. Some communities are more proactively addressing the housing shortage and are friendlier to development than others. The Boston Foundation’s recently published study, Housing Report Card 2019, provides an in-depth background on the causes and effects of the housing shortage, and it grades Boston area municipalities on their efforts to address this crisis.

3.  Test Fit Before You Commit

It is always a good idea to test fit – do a quick layout to identify a realistic unit count before you commit to a site. This can help you validate your pro forma and gain an initial understanding of zoning issues you might encounter going forward. As part of our standard process, Phase Zero Design often works conceptually with clients at the pre-design stage to help test sites for feasibility. 

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4.  Seek Zoning Relief

With the high cost of real estate in the Boston area, most multi-family residential projects will need to seek zoning variances to work financially. Fortunately, most municipalities have regulations in place to allow some relief for this. Phase Zero Design understands the requirements and works with your development team to guide you through the regulatory approvals process successfully.

Could you use our help with a test fit for your property? Contact us here and we will be happy to help!