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Don’t Believe the ‘Overdevelopment’ Hype: Greater Supply Is the Answer to Our Metro Areas’ Affordable-Housing Crisis

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Don’t Believe the ‘Overdevelopment’ Hype: Greater Supply Is the Answer to Our Metro Areas’ Affordable-Housing Crisis

December 18, 2019

When it comes to the affordable-housing crisis, the “nightmare” in California has dominated the national conversation. But the East Coast also suffers from a dearth of affordable housing. Thankfully, this year’s local elections delivered several key pro-housing wins across Greater Boston, including the election of pro-housing candidates in Cambridge, Marc McGovern, and Boston, Marty Walsh.

Cambridge now has enough pro-housing legislators to pass the Affordable Housing Overlay, a zoning liberalization that would relax current bans on affordable multifamily housing. While the overwhelming support in Cambridge is heartening, the next step toward replicating this success elsewhere should start with Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative to restore majority rule to land use regulations.

Results in Cambridge and elsewhere suggest growing support for a “Yes In My Backyard” or YIMBY approach to the region’s housing crisis. But because Massachusetts requires a local supermajority vote to change zoning rules—a requirement unheard of in other states and more typical of changes to a constitution—other localities remain unable to provide relief to struggling renters. 

Baker’s plan would allow majority votes on implementing basic “smart growth” principles, like allowing mixed-use retail and the region’s classic three-deckers in town centers and near transit. This builds on existing state technical assistance, capital grants, and Chapter 40S support for schools to fund public services in towns that upgrade from “no growth” to smart growth.

Some powerful voices on the other side of the debate, like the outgoing Vice Mayor of Cambridge, Jan Devereux, have recently claimed that core municipalities like Cambridge are “addicted to growth.” Last month, the losing mayoral candidate in Revere, Dan Rizzo, decried “overdevelopment,” citing of one of the few bright spots on the horizon for Greater Boston’s housing supply: the visionary Suffolk Downs redevelopment plan to add thousands of transit-friendly housing units on idle land near the Blue Line.

But voters are beginning to push back against this narrative of “excessive development” for good reason. The populations of Greater Boston’s core cities still lag their 20th-century peaks—Boston proper is still 100,000 residents short of its 1950 high, even as the total U.S. population has doubled. Indeed, the city of Boston has tumbled steadily further out of the top 10 largest American cities since 1950, to 21st-largest today. In a fairer regional comparison, Greater Boston has fallen to 10th by population among U.S. metro areas. 

How does the “overdevelopment” story square with a region that’s physically growing more slowly than its peer cities despite boasting one of the hottest economies in America?

The puzzle has an obvious answer: Greater Boston has shrunk in relative terms because slow-growthers have been calling the shots, not because the “overdevelopment” story was true. As that narrative took hold, even less net new development has occurred. The esteemed Metropolitan Area Planning Council says the region needs 435,000 more housing units by 2040 just to keep up with demand.

The result? According to Zillow, Metro Boston is now a more expensive rental market than greater New York City. Zillow estimates the value of a typical rental unit in each region, with the latest estimate for metro Boston at $2,429 per month, compared to $2,289 per month for metro New York. (Greenwich Village is still more expensive than Back Bay, but New York’s cheaper suburbs more than make up for it in Zillow’s methodology.)

That’s right: Boston’s metro area is still smaller than Philly and yet more expensive than New York. Housing supply matters.

By contrast, regions like Houston have added millions of residents over the last twenty years without spiking house prices and rents—because they’ve permitted mind-blowing volumes of housing. Greater Houston has, in many years since 2000, issued more new housing permits than the entire state of California. America keeps growing, but Boston has only grown more exclusive.

Intuitively, regions where housing supply grows more slowly than job growth get more expensive, as new workers competing for the same houses create a bidding war. Regions that build in pace with job growth (or still have a Rust Belt-era overhang of vacant housing waiting to fill back up, like Detroit or Buffalo) are the regions that remain affordable.

Boston’s metro area is still smaller than Philly and yet more expensive than New York. Housing supply matters.

Where, then, should Boston build? To avoid clogging the roads any further, it must happen along transit nodes. Within the next five years, the MBTA will complete the Green Line Extension. The Red & Orange Line investment programs will bring new signaling and train cars to expand rush-hour capacity by 50% and 40%, respectively. The campaign to bring traffic-killing congestion pricing to Boston, led by Transportation for Massachusetts’ Chris Dempsey, should get a boost when New York’s congestion pricing demonstrates results in 2021. The transportation investments are coming—will the housing come too?

Regional officials get it. Gov. Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative is a good first step toward easing building restrictions, if it can get through the legislature. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council meanwhile has united 15 regional mayors in a pledge to add 185,000 units by 2030 to share the benefits of broad-based housing growth. Voter support for pro-housing platforms across the board is critical to keeping this housing alliance intact, passing the Housing Choice Initiative, and building the housing Boston needs to keep regional rents in check. 

Boston needs more growth, not less. From Cambridge’s Affordable Housing Overlay supporters to the victorious Revere mayor’s Suffolk Downs master plan, voters have set the stage to put the old growth myths behind and start building a regional transit-oriented response to the housing crisis. 

Alex Armlovich is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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Photo by DebraMillet/iStock

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