Commentary | We have to get housing right for us to grow together as a city

The pages of this local paper have been full to bursting the last few months with reporting and opinion pieces about the many proposals currently making their way through the city’s permitting process to build much-needed housing in Dorchester. The few projects large enough to actually have significant impact on housing affordability locally have received some of the loudest opposition – the transformational creation of Dorchester Bay City, which in addition to its IDP commitments to create hundreds of affordable homes on Columbia Point, will also be contributing $10 million to the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance’s first generation home buyer program; the Pine Street Inn’s conversion of a defunct motel into 104 units of long-term supportive housing for their most vulnerable aging clients; and Trinity Financial’s proposal to build 74 apartments at 150 Centre Street, immediately adjacent to Shawmut Station, of which 60+% will be income-restricted. The objections are familiar – concerns regarding whether new neighbors will be disruptive, implications for parking and traffic from increased density, and the ever-present worry about the impact new homes will have on neighborhood character. But these loud voices of opposition are deeply unrepresentative of Dorchester as a whole, with our lived embrace of diversity and history of pragmatic response to the realities of constant urban change.

We have all seen the housing crisis escalate over the last decade. The lack of sufficient housing to meet demand created by our economic growth means the cost of existing houses and apartments is bid up by the wealthiest people trying to live in the City. It also means that singles or couples who might prefer a studio or one bedroom are occupying multi-bedroom units in three deckers with roommates instead – stock which historically has served families with children – and that empty-nesters, who might want to downsize while staying in the neighborhood where they’ve lived for decades, can’t find anything suitable, so hold onto homes too large for their needs for longer than they would like.

Our current zoning rules, such as those prohibiting building multi-family homes and apartment buildings without variances, have their origin in racial exclusion, classism, segregation, and inequity. Most of Dorchester’s iconic three deckers would not even be able to get a permit as of right today! We have ample evidence from dozens of studies in dozens of cities that increasing housing supply by relaxing outdated zoning codes is beneficial to people with lower incomes, people of color, and families with young children. More housing in our urban centers allows all of these groups better access to critical amenities, greater educational and job opportunities, and the ability to avoid displacement. Recent research also establishes that increasing the supply of market rate units does not drive up the cost of existing homes.

The seriousness of the climate crisis we face as a region and a nation, and its disproportionate impact on our most marginalized residents, is another urgent reason to support creating abundant housing in existing city centers. If Boston takes our commitment to becoming a Green City seriously (100% reduction in emissions by 2050), the BPDA and ZBA, and their successors, need to encourage and approve as many high density infill projects as quickly as possible, particularly Transit Oriented Developments (TOD), in the months and years ahead. The MBTA has been struggling seemingly forever, but the solution to that is not suburban sprawl. Rather Beacon Hill must correct the long-standing inappropriateness of the T’s funding structure and resulting neglect; implement needed management reforms; maximize service, reliability, and ridership throughout the system; and more transparently account for the many and varied costs associated with every car on the road. Additionally, the City should continue to focus on infrastructure and operational changes needed for mode shifts away from cars, like bus priority corridors and protected bike lanes.

With the passage of the MBTA Communities Act, 175 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts served by the MBTA, other than Boston, are now required to allow more multi-family housing as of right near transit. It’s an excellent mechanism to make sure that all metro Boston communities contribute to solving the housing crisis we face, but Boston must also continue to do its part. In line with Mayor Wu’s commitment to modernize Boston’s zoning code and launch a new City Planning and Design Department, Dorchester Growing Together calls on the City to eliminate single family zoning entirely, allowing fourplexes & ADUs (accessory dwelling units) as of right everywhere, with much higher density encouraged near transit; shift to parking maximums instead of minimums; engage with our colleges and universities to build more dormitory housing for their students; increase funding for affordable housing efforts citywide; and enact tenant protections to prevent displacements now, while we create more housing to meet current demand.

Members of Dorchester Growing Together believe that getting housing right is essential in order to make significant inroads on inequality, health, education, transit, economic growth, and climate change. A shocking number of residents of Boston, both homeowners and renters, are severely “housing burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30% of their household income on housing expenses, leaving them little financial cushion for other day-to-day needs and increasingly at risk of being priced out of the City altogether. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Resident input regarding the needs of the community, the quality of new construction, and mitigations for its impacts is important, especially in communities who have historically experienced disinvestment and destructive “urban renewal” projects. But we cannot allow hyper-local opposition to new developments, voiced by a small percentage of securely established homeowners, to delay a meaningful increase in our housing supply. Not every new building will be immediately embraced by all of its neighbors, but as a City we can actively work toward implementing Mayor Wu’s goals of “resiliency, affordability, and equity” in housing, without letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Jenn Cartee is the Chair of the Steering Committee of Dorchester Growing Together, a local civic organization with over 100 members.

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