starter homes

^ “starter homes” circa 1880-1910 in “Southie” : where and how will Boston build them now ?

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That Boston is growing — rapidly — has not caught our governments unaware. Both Governor Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh have called for building thousands of new homes, condominium units, and rental spaces, and both men have taken steps to make that happen. Still, as my twitter follower Molly Goodman of Jamaica Plain noted — retweeting a Boston Globe story: link here :  http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2016/07/08/house-hunting-greater-boston-good-luck/DgOt0DeBaQBtmFRaOweHfI/story.html?s_campaign=bostonglobe%3Asocialflow%3Atwitter–  where are the “starter homes” ?

Answer : there are hardly any. Almost all the home-building in Boston so far has targeted the high end. And the VERY high-end. How could it not ? Land acquisition costs for a $ 250,000 house are the same as for a $ 1 million spread, and the construction cost for the luxury item isn’t that much greater than for the cheapo version. Developing ANYTHING in Boston also requires huge patience and a team of consultants to shepherd through the BRA design approval stage, the “community” review charade, and the permitting labyrinth. Far better to maximize one’s cash haul than to go through six stages of bureaucratic hell for small beer.

Not even the Mayor, for all his chartered power, can force thousands of home units through thee hells. Any building contemplated in Boston either changes the environ of an empty lot or assaults the vested interests of one with structure upon it. The slapstick pie of a “community” review makes clear right away that those who want everything to stay exactly as it is will swarm to sting change proposals to death. I don’t care what you, the developer, are planning — housing for veterans, market-rate rentals, “affordable” condos, a mixed-use structure, even environmentally sexy upscale dream cottages : sixty people who live nearby will fill the review meeting with every manner of objection, from utility lines to conservation impacts to traffic density scandal, and they will keep you tied up in meeting after meeting until you tell your investors that “heck, this crap ain’t worth it.”

And yet the City grows, despite.

It grows because the arrangements of new businesses right now demand it: closeness to the workplace, no car lifestyle, socializing and shopping within walk or biking distance, and all one’s peers and pals equally nearby. As the most desirable skilled workers congregate, so the businesses must congregate, too; and both mayor and Governor encourage it, and have to, because the new businesses 9and the new million-dollar pleasure domes) bring plenty of new tax revenue to keep the City;’s schools from collapsing, not to mention the public transportation chatchki. All of this is as obvious as gust of perfume at the cosmetic counter; as are the $ 2,200 to $ 5,000 rents that knuckle you in the la-banza.

Thus the call for “starter homes.”

Once upon a time, starter homes — cheapo boxes with maybe 900 square feet of living space — were the urban norm. (You can see them on the streets across from the George Wright golf course on West Street in Hyde Park, hundreds of dachsund-size dwellings built in the 1949 to 1959 decade.) But they were built on vast and unbuilt land surrounded by yet more of the same. Nor was there then any mechanism by which opponents could interpose: the BRA was yet to be. Tens of thousands of these $ 6000 homes — yes, $ 6000; that was the price of a starter home back then — were built in Boston’s outlying neighborhoods, just as, forty to sixty years earlier, homes at a wage-earner’s price were built all through Dorchester, Mission Hill, Roxbury, and Brighton; and still earlier, in East Boston and “Southie.” Life was so much simpler then. Thousands of newly immigrated wo0riuers needed homes ? Homes were built and sold — bingo ! — on land formerly farmed and sold to developers for what was then lottery prize money (but which would today hardly buy you an economy car), and neither the farmers nor their neighbors complained or had any say in the matter.

It was easy. The city’s merchant and manufacturing elite wanted their workers housed, and those workers had the votes, and the builders were mostly immigrant workers too, and all coincided. Today not so. The entrepreneurs want their workers close, but the builders have to foot the bill, and those who already live on the parcels that would be built upon have pride of place. So : what to do ? You tell me.

If Mayor Walsh really means to get his 53,000 housing units built — and I think his number is at least 53,000 short — he ought to use his powers to get it done :

( 1 ) establish a new approval process in which proponents have just as easy time of it making themselves heard as do the opponents in today’s review charade. Imagine Boston 2030 is already doing this online.

( 2 ) take derelict properties by eminent domain and condemnation and auction them off for affordability-covenant housing; do the same for derelict industrial properties between Massachusetts Avenue and Norfolk Avenue in “Ward 8”

( 3 ) fill in tidal flat land extending out from Columbia Point (and maybe also from Castle Island), as our ancestors did in the Back Bay, for the express purpose of building affordability-priced housing of various kinds (condos, two family homes, three deckers, and singles)

( 4 ) approve the Widett Circle area for as much housing development as feasible, with associated shopping and amenities

( 5 ) cut the land acquisition cost to $ 1.00 per parcel, so that developers aren’t forced to seek the top end customer.

( 6 ) enact a $ 15/hour minimum wage, so that full time workers who live in Boston, or who want to live in the City, can actually afford, eventually, to buy an affordable home and pay a mortgage. ( Even at $ 15/hour, affording a starter home will require two incomes. Assuming a slightly higher wage of, say, $ 18 an hour for the two workers, that’s a monthly earning of about $ 5500: which just happens to be the median family income in Boston right now.)

We should be planning for 100,000 units of housing; that number would by itself so increase the supply as to hold prices back — and halt the dangerous ascent of rents — and we should prepare for the infrastructure, utility service, and school choice and innovation requirements that so many new residents will want and need. Remember : growth means change; life is change; supposedly, we like life; let’s see if our liking of life is more than just happy talk.



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