THE MORE HOUSING THAT’s BUILT, THE HIGHER THAT RENTS GO. HOW CAN THAT BE ?

junk

The laws of supply and demand say that the more supply, the lower the price, assuming that demand remains the same. Yet here, in Boston, the more housing that gets built, the more demand is created — much more demand — and so the price goes UP. Way up.

The building creates the demand !!

But how can that be ?

Let’s take a look :

The decision by Mayor Walsh, eight years ago, to call for 53,000 new units of housing — later raised to 69,000 units — jerked the housing market upward — radically upward — in two ways : first, it caused the price of land acquisition to double overnight. (It has since doubled again.) Second, the soon to be available 53,000 units generated a rush of people to come into the City and inhabit those units.

People who had no notion of moving into Boston — because there was nowhere for them to live — now decided “hey ! It’s Boston for me, dude !”

First neighborhood to feel the rush was the South End, already expensive after 20 years of incomers into a once seedy region of boarded-ups, wino squats, and rooming houses. Then came South Boston, where rents quadrupled from their 1998 levels. Charlestown saw its own rents boom as well, as the old Navy Yard was converted into luxury condominiums.

East Boston was at first left out of the rush because it lies on the far side of the Harbor and is overwhelmingly an immigrant neighborhood, hardly a destination for $ 250,000 earners with their very high-end expectations. But by 2015, any such exemption rapidly faded, as Eastie’s relatively inexpensive rents drew incomers earning far less than $ 250,000. For a while it worked. As recently as 2018 you could find a two bedroom apartment in East Boston with a monthly as low as $ 1400, in a few spots cheaper still. No longer.

Since 2015 at least 250 development applications for variances (I am guessing the number; it may be far higher)– 40 percent of all of Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeal appeals — and BPDA approval have come before East Boston neighborhood groups, in accordance with BPDA’s public comment hearing regulation. Even though most have been voted down at those neighborhood hearings, the Zoning Board of Appeal almost always approves the many variances requested nonetheless.

As a result, thousands of housing units have been put onto the streets of East Boston . So : have rents gone down ? Just the opposite. They have soared.

How can that be ? Doesn’t increased supply cheapen demand ?

You would think so. But with Boston’s crazy housing policy, you would be wrong.

Given the costs of construction, and the wages paid to construction guys, the developer who builds cannot afford to charge el cheapo rents. just the opposite. Developers offer their new units at sharply higher rents than the prior going rates. that’s because the folks likely to rent those units want all sorts of amenities : granite-top kitchens, steel refrigerators, central air conditioning, an underwater garage, roof deck amenities, etc.

Developers cannot rent to Eastie residents because if you already live here, you don’t need a place to live. Thus the new units are marketed to higher income singles, from elsewhere, by brokers and realtors who have a commission to earn. (I do not object to their earning it. They aren’t creating the problem, just trying to make a living.)

Eastie residents have also watched these buildings being built. They see the junk materials, the cheapo construction, the sea-rise vulnerabilities, the ugly architecture, the impersonality of it all — the opposite of community. Why would our community people ever want to rent in such buildings, even if the rents were less ? Thus the marketing to people from elsewhere, rushing to move into the City because there’s “all this new housing” !

There’s much talk these days about building ‘affordable” housing. The only way that that can be done is for somebody to take an economic loss. Who’s up for that ? Not very many !

One method that electeds have put in place is the so-called “affordability covenant,” by which a developer who builds more than nine units must offer 13 percent of his units at an “affordable” price. (In some cases, electeds have jacked this percentage up to 20 percent.) Sounds good — but it only makes the situation worse: because if a developer has to offer 13 percent of his units at a loss, he has to raise the prices of his other 87 percent of units !

City Life/Vida Urbana and other “progressive” activists talk about building “affordable” housing as a general practice — no more luxury condos, say they. I support their ideal; but how is it to be done ? Perhaps withy Federal funds ? I’m not sure that that works. In the 1940s we built loads of Federally-funded housing developments. They were ugly buildings, prison-block in appearance and pretty quickly devolved into projects for the most dysfunctional tenants, often crime-ridden and administered irregularly by the Boston Housing Authority. We do NOT want to repeat that mistake.

I have n o good answers for the anomalies of housing in Boston. I DO know, however, that the current policies aren’t working. They’re doing the opposite of what works.

Eastie residents, see this. They’ve have finally risen up and said “enough !”

We’ll see how that goes.

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

CAN BOSTON’S SCHOOL COMMITTEE BE MADE TO WORK ?

distraction

This week, Boston’s School Committee made the news again — and not in a good way. Two members of the all-appointed Committee were caught out exchanging racially charged messages: complaining about “West Roxbury white-ies.”

Condemnation came swiftly, from every quarter, as it had to be. Why is a schools person, of all perps, engaging in racial invective ? One expects educated people to be smarter than that, more worldly, more accustomed to politicking among all sorts of folks in all kinds of neighborhoods. So much for expectations !

As I see it, however, the problem here isn’t just personal ignorance where awareness ought to be. It’s that an all-appointed School Committee just doesn’t do the job.

We all know this is so. I have written a couple of times before on this issue, favoring an elected school committee because the voting public should be choosing who sits on the committee that proposes and operates a budget taking up one full third of Boston’s entire City expenditures.

Yes, the appointee answer to the Mayor, who is elected by Boston’s voters. But no, it isn’t really feasible to hold the Mayor accountable separately for his or her school decisions. We elect Mayors upon many issues. Too often the schools matters het lost in the pack or are overlooked altogether when we choose a Mayor. An elected School Committee is the right device for submitting schools accountability to the voters.

Mayor candidate Annissa Essaibi George suggests a hybrid committee : some elected, some appointed by the Mayor. I’m not sure that’ll work as well as an entirely elected committee, but as long as the voters elect a majority of committee members, the accountability level is high enough.

We’ve had an elected school committee before. Five at large until 1981, nine by District from 1981 until 1993. Why not again ? My own proposal is that elected school committee members be elected from the present school seating assignment districts : four from the largest district, three from the middle sized district, and two from the small district. Add two members appointed by the Mayor, and you have an eleven-member committee that voters can judge on school issues alone.

I would doubt that elected members would ever be caught blurting dumb racial slurs. Responsibility to the voters entails some degree of self-awareness and a high degree of self-discipline. You can think all the ugliness you like, but if ops, keep it to yourself is a wise axiom. One would like to think, that committee members who have to face the voters every two years would live up to this minimum of public good manners.

Boston’s public schools have enough to do without having its board of directors nicked by unnecessary controversy. There’s a ton of spending waste (the “transportation” account in particular), unsupportable allocations,. long neglected maintenance and facility upgrades, anomalies in the teachers’ contract, poor school lunch administration, lax financial oversight, and a ton of happy talk about “every child, not only those in the exam schools, deserves an excellent education” with no measure of happy follow-up. Can we ever get to administering and upgrading the schools serving 54,000 kids, or can’t we ? CAN WE AT LEAST TRY ?

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

64 HAYNES STREET : BATTLES OVER EVERY ISSUE

64 haynes

A proposal has been offered, to abutters and the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association, to construct, on an empty lot, the building pictured above.

Crystal Mills, the proponent, makes the following statement and asks people to sign it, as a letter to the Zoning Board of Appeal, endorsing the project :

I support the project at 64 Haynes Street for the following reasons:

1. The building will be the primary residence of the sponsor, who has been a long-term resident of Jeffries Point, and not an investment project.

2. The building will be 100% compliant with Group 1 accessibility requirements for the physically impaired.

3. Is a three-family dwelling, which is conforming use per the zoning code, and matches the great majority of abutting buildings.

4. It proposes three off street parking, one for each unit, helping with the neighborhood existing street parking shortage. All this while reducing the size of the existing curb cut already present on the property.

5. The building is designed with climate resiliency in mind, avoiding any living space on the ground level. This is in line with the BPDA Coastal Flood Resilience Design Guidelines – http://realestate.boston.com/…/boston-zoning-climate…/ / http://www.bostonplans.org/…/d1114318-1b95-487c-bc36…

6. The project would bring three additional dwellings to the city of Boston. Idle land in a densely populated urban setting further deepens the affordability crisis by reducing supply...”

Sounds simple, right ? Just one of over 100 such proposals being made all over East Boston these days, and this by far not the most outlandish. The building would be four stories high ? Some East Boston proposals request SIX stories.

It will be three units ? Many East Boston projects want nine units. (Propose more than nine, and you are subject to the City’s unworkable “affordability covenant,” under which a builder must offer an ‘affordable” unit, at least one such per every ten units he wants to build.). Several neighborhood proposals seek 20, 40, 60, even 100, 200 nd 300 units. Entire cities crammed into a neighborhood already dense with traffic and cheek-by-jowl housing.

So, no ; the 64 Haynes Street request is far from the most frightful imposition seeking to impact East Boston at this time.

Nonetheless, this proposal has put into play all the issues that housing development has agitated on the north shore side of Boston harbor. Follow me :

Crystal Mills does not tell us that she is, in fact, the proponent. it is to be HER building. Into one of the units her Dad will move; into another, guests from Italy. Great : but as several commenters on the Jeffries Point facebook page note, there is no guarantee that her Dad will stay living in one unit, or that he will even move in; while the unit given over to “guests from Italy’ almost certainly will end up an air bnb.

And what if those two units get put up for sale, at huge prices current these days in East Boston ? Prices which further roll away the immigrant, working class character that East Boston has had since the 1850s ?

One commenter, an abutter, objects to the proposal as follows :

Crystal, could you also please post the square footage per dwelling? At the latest meeting I attended, there were two units of about 500 Square feet taking up one floor between them – one for your father and then one for guests visiting from Italy and then an additional unit spread over two floors upwards of 2000 sqf with a roof deck for your private residence. Is that still correct? Because that, in fact, is not matching the great majority of abutting buildings, where you usually see one unit per floor -equaling 3 dwellings of approximately equal size and it explains why you require a 4-floor building which is out of scale with the neighboring buildings. I want people to have full information when you talk about 3 dwellings. More importantly, this building will stand a story higher than the neighboring buildings setting a new precedent for the entire street.

Here’s all of the basic arguments being made by people who have lived in East Boston for many years and do not cotton to seeing it become something entirely else.

I could post dozens of comments, about other not-so-outrageous proposals, that mirror every part of this person’s objection to one particular project.

Another commenter, who happens to be a real estate broker active in East Boston and owns their own single family home in it, offers the following :

The design would be great with one less floor. While I appreciate the family story, and your small businesses, I also don’t trust that these won’t be sold after permitting, used for market rate versus family etc. which is your right but again asking for variances should be for hardship, and this isn’t hardship.. we’ve had the community sacrifice tear downs and variances with owner “stories” only for it to change. Maybe a convenant could be used ensuring you won’t rent or sell once approved for a certain period of time?

This very argument gets made by residents all over East Boston, people who do not object to all development but want to restrain its impact by persuading builders — hopefully — to conform their buildings to what East Boston houses already are.

Does such a request work ? Sometimes it does. But it is, as Otto von Bismarck once said, generally not wise to rely upon gratitude.

Another commenter notes :

“Also a question to all who know more- as someone who lives in this neighborhood with a family, do families promising to live in the house get preference? Should they? Does it matter in the variance process? If so, how is this regulated? I know another neighborhood where a developer rezones/ renovates, lives as a primary residence for 2 years for tax reasons, and then moves on. Where does that fit in the scheme of things?

—- —-

If all the above issues draw you farther into the matter of one proposed building than you’d like to go, hey– I am with you and so is everybody else. We don’t want these disputes. Don’t want them at all. Yet what are we of East Boston to do ? Almost every development proposal for this side of Boston Harbor, no matter how gross or disruptive, gets approval by the BPDA no matter the degree of opposition voted by the neighborhood associations whose vote the BPDA approval process requires.

Evidently the neighborhood vote is advisory only — has no legal force and not much political clout either.

Equally dismissive is the Zoning Board of Appeal’s hearings upon variance requests.

For those who don’t know, a variance is an exception to the zoning law classification governing a certain area. These classifications are set by the City according to State zoning law. Variances — exceptions — are allowed in case of “hardship” — as zoning is of general force, particular buildings, especially ones that existed before zoning laws came into being, may violate the general class as they are; or a property owner may want to extend a bedroom, or erect a deck, and such like; the addition may well violate the zoning, but it would be a hardship to deny the owner such addition or extension. The owner appeals the building department’s denial of a building permit, and the Zoning Appeal Board (“ZBA”) grants the exception.

Every variance thus granted is supposed to enhance the zoning regulation’s purposes, not undermine it. Yet these days the ZBA grants almost every variance request. Many people well before me have objected — loudly and often — to what amounts to ditching the zoning law altogether. The objections are disregarded.

64 Haynes Street asks for six separate variances. this isn’t unusual. Almost every developer proposal seeks as many variances as the developer needs to build what he likes. Developers do sometimes agree to scale back their proposals, hoping for a positive vote by the neighborhood association. Maybe that will happen here. Maybe it won’t.

What is battling at 64 Haynes Street is the same sort of fight occurring all over East Boston and in many other parts of Boston. Nor is 64 Haynes the worst offender — as I have written above. It is, however, emblematic of the direction that Boston is going in pursuant to vast sums of money insisting on treating Boston real estate solely as a huge profit opportunity.

Every housing move made by Boston City Hall these past thirty years has aggravated the situation. Worst, probably, was Mayor Walsh’s declaration, back in the 2013 Mayor campaign, that he wanted 53,000 new housing units built. Overnight the acquisition cost of land doubled. it has since doubled again, even tripled, as the building rush Walsh’ s declaration generated has fed upon itself.

Almost as aggravating was Walsh’s “affordability covenant” rule, as pronounced by his BPODA, whereby a developer who builds ten units or more must offer one per every ten at an “affordable” price. At first the “
affordability” ratio is to be 13 percent of units built. Lately, the huge Suffolk Downs project, offering 10,000 units, was forced to agree to sell 20 percent at an “affordable” price., What this “:affordability: rule does, as simple math shows, is to jack up the price of the market rate units: because if a developer has to take a loss on 13 or even 20 percent of his units, he has to raise the price of the other units accordingly so that he can make the level of profit his investors have contracted for.

This is what politicians do. (and by the way, it has been “progressive” politicians chiefly, who have revved up the trend.) Unhappily, the math doesn’t care about your progressivism or your politics…..

At this point, the politics and the profit wave have mutually assured the destruction, within Boston, of low-price, immigrant and working class housing.

The fate of East Boston, 160 years an immigrant destination, seems irreversible. Into it are moving an entirely newcomer class of high-earning participants in the money economy our City is hub for : finance, insurance, medicine, hi-tech, biotech, higher education (this last one of the most grossly overpaid groups anywhere) — and who as often as not live in vast crap-itecture structures, porch-less and with no back or front yards, where no one knows anybody else or cares to.

They are of course fully entitled to live their lives as they see fit. Far be it for me to criticize anyone thereby. Yet as the lives of many East Boston newcomers are lived, community is not a part thereof. And even for those who do find time to make friends and be activist neighbors, the matters that draw their activism rarely have anything to do with the activities that immigrant East Boston organized ; kids’ sports, park-league sports, school charity events, celebration days and parades.

Lastly, the very status of immigrant hasn’t the patriotic devotion that it had 40, 60, 100, 150 years ago. Our nation restricts immigration generally, even denigrates it. Those few immigrants who are allowed come are rarely penniless, as were our forbears, and do not settle in immigrant havens. Thus the people flows that once fed East Boston have been cut off even as South beach prices and jet-set lifestyles become the norm for a generation that parties on instagram and aspires to million-dollar condos.

64 Haynes Street might as well have a Miami Beach zipcode. Because that’s where we are now. Private islands, celebrity mansions and all. Or if not exactly that — yet — at least houses that say “I am an influencer.”

— Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere