Boston is doing just fine, thank you. Not only is there ready evidence of commercial construction downtown but apartment buildings and condos are springing up in a housing market with far more demand than supply.
And it’s not just the city of Boston that is experiencing a healthy economy. The 15th annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, released by The Boston Foundation on Tuesday, notes that the state’s economy “continues to perform extraordinarily well,” with seasonally adjusted employment and private sector wages both at all-time highs. The region “continues to attract new arrivals, particularly among young adults,” although the fastest-growing group is baby boomers, those 65 and older.
But the report tells a different story about housing in the Boston suburbs and communities up and down the North and South shores. For anyone on the lower- to- middle-income scale looking to rent an apartment or buy a home, the options in Greater Boston and beyond are limited.
The good news is that Boston is building a lot of new housing, accounting for 40 percent of the residential building permits issued last year in eastern Massachusetts. But the fact that few suburbs – with only a handful of exceptions, and none on the North Shore – are building large numbers of affordably priced apartments and houses is a continuing problem.
Near-record low vacancy rates in Greater Boston pushed single-family home prices to an all-time high this year, with “the median price of a single-family home in the five-county region (including Essex) reaching $447,799.” The dramatic price increases in Greater Boston mean home prices in historically working class communities are going up, too. The report says that in just two years, Peabody’s median home price went up 6 percent. Lawrence’s was up 14.2 percent, which was higher than the appreciation in Brookline (14 percent) and Newton (12.4 percent).
Middle-income and working class families are moving to these lower-cost communities to find more affordable housing, which is driving up prices.
So, if you have a higher income and already own a home or condo in Greater Boston, things are rosy. But for many others, the prospects are bleak.
This Housing Report Card sees a solution to this problem of (affordable) supply and demand if municipal and private sector leaders throughout the region work together with the governor on solutions. The report lays out a 10-step plan to increase construction of housing units in what it calls “21st Century Villages.” These villages would consist of multistory buildings near public transit, whenever possible, and with variations “not only in size but in fit and finish” to allow for rents from $900 to $3,000-plus per month “to match the pocketbooks of a range of tenants.”
The 21st Century Village would use modular design and panelized construction to keep the costs down and maximize “high productivity building techniques.” These villages might be built on publicly owned sites, including MBTA properties. Planning departments in cities and towns would be encouraged to implement zoning changes to make 21st Century Villages “legal as-of-right and affordable.”
The 10-step plan is a bold one that would call on government, business and nonprofit leaders to work together and to think together about our growing housing needs. With the state’s economy doing well and Massachusetts continuing to be a magnet for students and workers, it’s essential that the region get to work creating housing for people with a variety of incomes and family sizes — from downsizing baby boom couples or singles, to singles new in the housing market, to lower- and middle-income families struggling to find any place they can afford.
If we don’t address this demand for housing in a regional way, and quickly, it’s a sure bet our healthy state economy will suffer.