Report Highlights Boston’s Escalating Housing Crisis
Here’s a fact: greater Boston is experiencing and urban renaissance.
Also fact: greater Boston is experiencing an escalating housing crisis.
Just how long can the two realities coexist before something has to give? Before the significant advances the region has made begin to slip away, simply because it’s too expensive to live here?
Barry Bluestone, lead author of the Boston Foundation’s report. He’s a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern university. He’s also director of the Dukakis Center. He tweets @BarryBluestone.
Sheila Dillon, Boston’s chief of housing and director of the Department of Neighborhood Development.
On how alarmed we should feel about Boston’s housing situation:
Barry Bluestone: “We’ve been looking at this for more than a decade and the latest numbers — just to give you an idea of how shocking this was to us — is that, if you look at renters in Boston, more than half…of all the renters in greater Boston are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, leaving less for everything else. Even worse, more than a quarter of all renters — 26.4 percent — are spending more than half…of their annual gross income just to pay rent.”
On the impact on the region when such a huge proportion of people are cost-burdened for renting or ownership:
BB: “If you took just the city of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville…you’re seeing that we now increasingly have two kinds of people living here — the real affluent who can afford…$4,000 a month in a condo or rent, and those people who are so poor that they actually qualify for subsidized rent or live in public housing. We’ve been losing everybody in between, who have to move further and further out to find housing they can afford. The result is we’re getting a society here in greater Boston of rich and poor — of the haves and have-nots. It’s almost like a third world country that we’re becoming if this continues into the future.”
On the battle between millennials and baby boomers over housing:
BB: “It’s not so much the battle between millennials — let’s say, 20 to 34-year-olds — many of whom have not yet paired off and gone off and had families…It’s that the baby boomers, like myself…many of us are looking to downsize. Not all of us, but many of us would like to stay in the communities where we grew up. Maybe it’s Newton or Watertown or wherever. But we’re finding there’s very little housing that’s appropriate for us, so we’re stuck, either, in our big home or we have to leave the community where we have friends and our church or synagogue. For millennials, there is some good news here, and the good news is that, a decade ago, millennials were just leaving. They come to Northeastern, where I teach, and as soon as they got out they go somewhere else and that was true of a lot of our graduates. Now they’re staying, that’s good news. But, they’re doubling up, tripling up, quadrupling up with roommates, and they’re renting the old triple-deckers that were built between 1870 and 1920 for working families, and so what they’re doing is making it more and more difficult for the working families to stay here, and they’re dealing with the cost burden by four of them sharing exorbitant rent so they can afford it. We need to find a way to build housing for them, and also to change our zoning laws so we can have the appropriate housing for those baby boomers. And if we do that, we could serve the millennials, we could serve the working families with the older stock and we could rehab that to make that really nice housing for them and then produce the kind of housing that I need, and as I love to say, at my age — approaching 71 years old — I need very few amenities but one of them’s an elevator.”
On why the market isn’t responding to the demographic shift:
BB: “This is amazing — between 1870 and 1920 the city of Boston’s population triples, from 250,000 to 750,000, much of that driven by immigrants. We built triple-deckers and small apartment buildings for them. We housed all of them. All of them. And after World War II, we, of course, saw a decrease in the population in the central cities like Boston and Chelsea and Somerville, but we saw this massive growth in the suburbs and, again, we built housing for all of them. This time, we have a third demographic revolution of the millennials and the aging baby boomers and zoning rules and regulations in the suburbs keep developers from developing the kind of housing that we need. And, in the city, it’s hard to find the ability to produce housing at a cost that young people can afford. So, for the first time, we have a demographic revolution and the market is stuck. It can’t respond.”
On the number of people who can’t afford to live where they work:
BB: “This is actually a kind of problem you would like to have, relative to some of the other problems. It is great that we have young people wanting to live in Boston again, and not going to Brooklyn and not going to God knows where. It is great that we have older citizens who want to stay in Massachusetts and not go to Florida. But, it is a challenge because, in order to keep the region vibrant, in order to be able to replace those baby boomers who will be retiring with young workers to take their place, we need to solve this housing problem and we need to do it in a way that we don’t end up with a city of rich and poor, and them further and further out in the suburbs, where the working families can live. Paris is a great example. Paris has moved all of its poor people outside the city. When the riots occur they don’t occur downtown, they occurred further and further out because there was no affordable housing inside Paris for working families. We don’t want that to happen in Boston.”
- “This report card also draws attention to a serious challenge facing all residents of Greater Boston, especially those living in poverty. Individuals and families are paying a higher and higher percentage of their income on housing—a situation that simply must change in order to give everyone the chance to succeed and thrive in our community.”
- “Young adults and their aging parents are engaged in an escalating and increasingly expensive struggle for one of Greater Boston’s scarcest resources: an affordable place to live.”
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