City needs to clarify its goals on housing

The city of Boston desperately needs more housing – and it’s coming. Developments small, medium, and large are dominating the pages of the Reporter in unprecedented ways as homeowners and developers alike seize on a red-hot market and the potential for growth in Dorchester and, increasingly, in Mattapan.

All are responding not just to market forces but also to a call from the Walsh administration, which last year laid out its vision for creating up to 53,000 new units of housing by 2030. The number seemed ambitious when the report was rolled out in October 2014; now, more than a year later, it seems like a conservative estimate.

Since that report was issued, home sales have jumped up by 11 percent across the state, most of it just since May when last winter’s mini-Ice Age finally abated. The Warren Group reports that there have been more than 30,000 single-family home sales since June in Massachusetts, a leap of more than 18 percent over the same period last year. Sixty percent of those sales were condos.

Meanwhile, a report released by The Boston Foundation last week warned that the costs of building in the region, particularly in Boston, are exacerbating the strain on the existing stock. The report pointed to the “unsettling” tilt towards high-end developments and jacked-up rental costs, which average $2,600 for a two-bedroom. (Dorchester is just slightly below this median price.) Meanwhile, the report finds that the price of a single unit in a three-decker has increased 95 percent since 2009 and 8 percent since last year, up to $477,057 by the end of this year. The Foundation report urges the creation of larger housing projects, broader zoning for higher density multi-family housing, and incentives to donate land for affordable and mixed-income housing as ways to tackle the problem.

Locally, we are seeing the pressures of this need for more housing unfold at civic association meetings and at the Zoning Board of Appeals. Lately, the Walsh administration has thrown its weight behind development plans, even when they were not fully embraced by neighbors and civic groups.

Last week, we detailed one such instance, in which a plan to replace a two-family house on Neponset Avenue with seven, three-bedroom townhouses won variances over the objections of abutters, civic leaders and other elected officials because the mayor’s office pushed for it. Neighbors, who generally supported the project overall but wanted to see minor adjustments made, responded with complaints to the mayor’s team. They wanted to know – quite reasonably – why their arguments for scaling back the project by one full unit did not win support from the mayor’s office or the board.

Last weekend, in remarks to the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, the mayor indicated that he is aware that there has been “push-back” to housing plans from neighbors, and he said his team is looking to support “smart development.” But, he added: “Some of it is changing a little bit of the mindset” among civic leaders who resist housing in their backyard.

But there are legitimate reasons for people in Dorchester to oppose over-development on their streets. The urgency to build out the region’s housing supply should not supplant case-by-case scrutiny of housing starts that might be too dense for a specific site.

Civic planning boards – composed of volunteers who donate their time to negotiate with well-compensated lawyers, developers and city officials – and abutters should have confidence in their legitimacy. The city is right to push for housing starts in communities like Dorchester and Mattapan. But civic leaders who negotiate in good faith and ask for reasonable concessions from builders should expect that the mayor’s office will have their back in the final analysis. Otherwise, reasonable attempts to check unfettered building are undermined.

The city needs to do a better job of explaining – in practical terms – what their amplified goals for housing starts mean at the ground level, especially for smaller properties — in the range of 6-12 units— that don’t get the same level of scrutiny as larger projects do through the BRA.

Fostering a better understanding among the mayor’s office, zoning board members, civic leaders, and the development community should become a higher priority as we enter 2016.