A reflection on the supply side of our pursuit for more housing

By Lawrence S. DiCara

Lawrence S. DiCara, an attorney and former Boston City Councillor, spoke to the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council on Nov. 4. Following are excerpts from his remarks.

“Even though I have lived in Jamaica Plain for 30 years, I am a native of Dorchester, and remember Dorchester and Mattapan in the post-war era.  Of course, there has been an ongoing debate as to exactly where the line is drawn between Dorchester and Mattapan.

“It was really very simple 50 years ago in my neighborhood: If you went to St. Angela’s, you lived in Mattapan. If you went to St. Gregory’s, you lived in Dorchester, notwithstanding whatever the post office or your zip code might have suggested.

“When I attended the Charles H. Taylor School, the Mattapan kids went out on the Morton Street side; the Dorchester kids went out on the Gallivan Boulevard side.  

“The Boston Zoning Code was enacted in 1965 when Boston was a very different city and I was at Boston Latin School.The city was down-zoned beginning in the early 1980’s.  Down-zoning meant that fewer buildings could be constructed as a matter of right than had been the case in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and, not surprisingly, other than large office towers downtown and buildings constructed by hospitals and universities, not a lot of development happened.  

“This downzoning was somewhat unfortunate, because Boston had suffered from a large number of negative events over a period of decades.  Aside from significant depopulation, the city had resulting abandonment and fires, including arson rings, one of which included Boston firefighters. Therefore, we have “missing teeth” across the city. 

“Today, someone proposing a three-decker on a street of three-deckers, or a two-decker on a street of two-deckers, or even a single in a neighborhood full of singles, often needs to go before the Board of Appeal, because almost nothing is as a matter of right due to the down-zoning which occurred for better or worse, in response to neighbors who wanted a less-dense neighborhood.  

“As a result of our recent economic prosperity, the Board of Appeal has far more cases today than it did 40 or 50 years ago. Cases are heard quickly because the board only meets twice a month. There is a review under way right now as to whether they should meet more often or have a different membership; these questions are not for me to decide. 

“There is a general consensus, but not a unanimous one, that the city should grow, or at least return to its population levels on either side of World War II, which was somewhere north of 700,000.  To grow, however, we need to find places for people to live and to build more housing wherever we can.  

“There have always been a wide range of housing options in Mattapan, but that housing was constructed for a very different city. Unlike when Boston last contained 700,000 people, more or less, family size is much smaller. At the end of World War II, it was a bit over three; now it is barely two per family and, in some neighborhoods, like the Fenway, it is slightly over one.  All sorts of people of various ages live alone.

“So, we have a supply problem. We have not constructed enough housing to house the people now living in the city, the result of which is that more young, single, mostly white people are living in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain, and displacing families, mostly families of color that include children, because they can pay more for a housing unit than a large family.

“We cannot solve our housing problem, and it is a significant problem, solely by building luxury units in downtown buildings, and having lotteries for affordable units here and there.  We cannot only build small units without parking spaces. 

“The two greatest increases in affordable housing in Boston and most other cities occurred after World War II, primarily to house returning veterans, and in the 1960s in conjunction with the War on Poverty. For the most part, the federal government has sat back idly ever since. To construct large numbers of affordable housing units requires both public will and federal dollars. 

Something is very wrong with a system that results in some projects requiring 12, 15, 17 different sources of funding, each of them requiring extensive documentation. Soft costs can approach 20 percent, further increasing the cost/unit and the necessity of even further subsidization. 

“Anyone looking at our census understands that the two groups needing housing the most are older people, many of them single, who need to downsize - I am one of them – and younger people just starting out who need options that can accommodate their lifestyles. Fifty-five and over housing (what I call “unassisted living”) and co-living, a step above a dormitory, must be encouraged throughout the city. 

“This is very different than the city where everybody was married in their early 20’s, had 3 or 4 kids, and lived upstairs or down from their family (which is how I was raised). We need to free up our older housing stock for families with children.

“The real issue, of course, is that the zoning policies of the great majority of the other 350 cities and towns make it difficult for all but single-family houses on large lots to be constructed. I know that Gov. Baker’s housing bill is proposing what to me is a very modest step – to change from two-thirds to one-half the vote needed on local bodies to secure a zoning change. I think that is, at best, a first step. What we need are far more significant actions on the part of the state in order to provide housing options for people of various incomes and various ages across the Commonwealth. 

“I know that later on this evening, you will be hearing from Councillor [Michelle] Wu, who has been very forthcoming about her interest in abolishing the Boston Redevelopment Authority. I am more interested in what takes its place if such a change happens. I would argue that we need to have a balanced approach, because, sadly, although most everybody would suggest we need more housing in the city, most people do not want it next door to where they live. 

“It is one of the great ironies of our times that some of the same bright, mostly younger people who argue for the construction of housing may not be as excited about it occurring near where they live. In Jamaica Plain and in other similar neighborhoods, there are scores, if not hundreds, of young people who contribute to environmental organizations, yet, they travel from spot to spot in an Uber or Lyft, they shop via the Internet, which brings delivery trucks onto our streets and destroys trees, and even take to their phone to get a hamburger delivered to their door, once again resulting in traffic and air pollution. There needs to be significant self-reflection with respect to all of these uses, as well as with respect to housing policy.

“On many other occasions, I have quoted my old colleague on the City Council, Fred Langone, who suggested that “everybody wants to go to heaven and nobody wants to die.” To some extent, that says it all, with respect to housing policy in the City of Boston.