Ensuring that everyone has access to affordable housing has long been the goal of government at every level. Unfortunately, efforts to provide affordable housing have not always been successful. Housing projects born out of Urban Renewal in the middle of the 1900s often degenerated into the slums they were constructed to replace. It was also quickly realized that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to construct housing projects that essentially divided a city by income, with all the poor people in the projects and everybody else in their own home or apartment.
Cities needed a better way to handle the issue. Out of this need came Boston’s current policy related to affordable housing. For large scale residential developments, the city requires that one of three conditions be met: (1.) 15% of the entire development needs to be designated as affordable housing, (2.) the equivalent of 15% of the number of units in the building needs to be built off-site and designated as affordable housing, or (3.) for each unit in the building that would have been designated as affordable housing, the developer can pay $200,000 to the city’s affordable housing trust fund which gets used to finance affordable housing throughout the city.
This seems to be a reasonable approach, but it has some problems. For one, I think it isn’t clear enough in establishing what the policy goal really is. It gives developers too much leeway. They can start off when they propose a project claiming they will include the 15%, but overtime they may change their minds and shift to the cash pay-out instead.
But there’s a bigger problem, too. It’s expensive to live in Boston for a lot of reasons, but one of the main culprits is simply the law of supply and demand. There is a very high demand for housing in Boston because it is a desirable place to live and work. This high demand, when not met with high supply, drives prices up. Part of the reason demand is not being met with enough supply is because it is so difficult to build in this city. The myriad approvals that are needed from any number of boards and commissions, along with the lengthy process of being granted approval by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, draws out the development process and drives the cost up. This means a developer seeking to turn the same profit, which they have a right to do, needs to maximize the profit of a project and is less likely to want to include units designated as affordable housing.
One alternate looks something like this. It becomes easier to develop in Boston. As a result more projects get built, and yes, most likely new projects will be mostly focused on market-rate housing, but the real benefit of these projects is to increase supply. This increased supply eats up the high demand for housing and the housing that is already here maintains its value and pricing, rather than being driven up by the high demand.
Another alternative could maintain the required percentage of affordable housing, but really make it a requirement and not give any leeway. This, in addition to improving the development process, could have the same effect. The city could also go so far as to further streamline the development process or groups willing to go above and beyond the required percentage.
For now, we have to operate within the process we have. On November 17, the BRA voted to approve the proposed Copley Place Tower project, which I’ve written about in this space before. The biggest change to the project from the last public meeting was that the developer has promised that if their plan of a mix of on-site and off-cite affordable units (10 units on-site and 38 off-site) does not work out, they will include all 48 units within the project itself. While I think as a gesture of good faith the developer ought to include all units on-site, I think this proposal is more workable and is at least a move in the right direction.
I’m not saying I have all of the answers, but the main takeaway is this: Boston needs to find a better way to do development in the city if we are going to continue to grow and compete globally, and affordable housing is a key piece of that growth. No one wants Boston to be a playground for only the rich and powerful. What makes a city great is a mix of every race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status living together in a city that accommodates all of their needs.
– Nick Downing, Future Boston Program Manager