Downtown View: The Challenges of Housing

Mayor Menino has set a goal of building 30,000 more units of housing by 2020, even though he won’t be mayor for most of that time. Governor Patrick set a goal last year of building 10,000 new units of multi-family housing during the same time period.

So Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board sponsored a forum last week to discuss the problems and possibilities for achieving such goals. Panelists were attorney, author and former city councilor Larry DiCara, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey, journalist Paul McMorrow, and real estate developer Ted Tye of National Development.

They were in awe of how Boston had changed since 1959 when writer Elizabeth Hardwick described Boston as an old lady—“wrinkled, spindly-legged, depleted of nearly all her spiritual and cutaneous oils, provincial, self-esteeming.” Hardwick wasn’t finished with her diatribe. She went on to declare that the city was exhausted under “the weight of the Boston legend, the tedium of its largely fraudulent poster of traditionalism,” and that its was a “culture that hasn’t been alive for a long time.”

Boston is no longer exhausted or depleted. It now has new legends—it still claims to be the hub of the universe, but its expertise now is in education, health, science, technology and finance, not in railroads and textiles. History is still a source of pride but it no longer triumphs over contemporary life. The city’s culture has been reinvigorated. People young and old want to live in Boston.

DiCara pointed out that industrial and commercial buildings have been reworked into housing for those who have rediscovered city life. He offered as an example the Boston Consolidated Gas Company’s building at Arlington and St. James streets, which was first re-used for UMass, then as the Renaissance Charter School, and now is under construction as housing.

But reworking old buildings hasn’t been enough. Outside of the Seaport, the city has little raw land or buildable sites, the BRA creates too much red tape, labor is high-priced, and neighbors’ love of the status quo makes property development a challenge. This makes housing expensive to build.

Despite the high prices, McMorrow pointed out that Boston added more residents between 2010 and 2012 than it did in the whole  decade of the 1990s. DiCara reminded the audience that there were now 20,000 people living within a six- to seven-minute walk of Macy’s.

Although he got pushback from one audience member, DiCara lamented the caution political leaders have taken with neighborhood groups, who tend to oppose most new projects. He pointed out that all the projects that have benefitted the city, such as Quincy Market, faced strong opposition from community groups but leaders with backbone over-rode fears. “Don’t wait until the community is happy,” he said. Leaders “must have the courage to say that the big picture is more important.”

Another problem for housing has been the lack of transportation infrastructure, said Ted Tye, whose firm National Development is creating the Ink Block on the former site of the Boston Herald building at the edge of the South End. Several of Tye’s housing developments have been built around T or rail stations. “Nothing is more important than transportation,” said Tye, who reported that residents in all his properties wanted to be near transit that could get them to work quickly and easily.

Panelists agreed that the MBTA had to be “improved, enlarged and enhanced.”

There were fixes panelists suggested to the problem of not enough housing. One was for universities to build more housing and encourage private student housing to be built, thus freeing up apartments students now live in.

Micro-housing was also mentioned as part of the solution, but the panelists were suspicious of its affordability, and such small housing wouldn’t accommodate high tech workers has they grew older and started families.

DiCara suggested building cheaper wood-frame construction of less than five stories around stations in outlying areas.

The panel did not address housing for families with children, nor did they address the collateral needs housing requires such as libraries, police and fire stations, new transit routes, playgrounds and parks.

The panelists were interesting and articulate, and the audience seemed to listen carefully to their insights. Yet nothing new occurred, no breakthroughs in how to get more housing off the ground (literally) and no bold ideas were expressed.

Perhaps that’s the way it is in solving problems: one step at a time rather than a sweeping plan. Bostonians may remember that the biggest sweeping plan in the last 100 years was a wipe-out of an entire neighborhood. So much for solving the housing problem. But, of course then, nobody wanted to live here except for the old West Enders who were sent away.

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