Turning the Corner on Housing Crisis

Originally published by The Boston Globe

January 18, 2006
Douglas Foy

In the latest flurry of reports and commentary on Massachusetts home prices and home rule, there's a lot of whale watching going on. Academics, advocates, and journalists fixing their gaze on the water aren't seeing big things happening. So there's a lot of doom and gloom and calls to chart a new course.
It's true that increasing housing production, allowing cities and towns to grow in an efficient and fiscally stable manner, and bringing about new development patterns in Massachusetts isn't a very splashy business. But some remarkable progress has already been made.
When Governor Mitt Romney was elected in 2002 the state was producing homes at a rate of 17,500 per year mostly big, expensive homes dispersed across the landscape. In the past three years, according to the Department of Housing and Community Development, that rate has been increased to 24,000 homes per year. And the number of multi-family versus single-family homes has doubled.
We're not saying anyone should relax. Far from it. There's much more work to be done. But we've turned the corner, and new state policies can continue to have an impact in the years ahead, allowing Massachusetts to hit the production rate that most experts say is necessary to increase supply and moderate prices critical to economic competitiveness and job growth.
A recent Rappaport/Pioneer Institute study highlighted the ways cities and towns were keeping new permits down, while recommending policy "steroids" to push for more housing regardless of location. But now's not the time for thoughtless bulking up.
The market has been a powerful driver of more housing in smart locations. Consider the "mixed-use" developments projects with homes, stores and restaurants, and office and laboratory space all in close proximity already in the pipeline: Assembly Square, the South Weymouth Naval Air Station, North Point in Cambridge, City Square in Worcester, Westwood Station, plus major projects on the way at the MBTA stations at Wonderland in Revere and Malden's Oak Grove.
Compact development on vacant "infill" land is brimming with eager buyers looking for shorter commutes, from Woodland Station in Newton to Wellington Circle in Medford, and in Salem, Abington, and Westborough.
Attleboro came out with a major overhaul for its downtown and train station area, Beverly has been quietly managing growth and ushering in development near commuter rail, and Northampton overhauled its zoning for a livelier, mixed-use center.
The Office for Commonwealth Development has lots of tools to help cities and towns usher in this kind of growth.
Under Chapter 40R, the establishment of compact smart growth districts is rewarded with cash infusions ranging from $10,000 to $600,000 plus $3,000 per home built. Under Chapter 40S, cities and towns get reimbursed for the unfunded cost of educating new school- age kids who move into these districts.
Under Commonwealth Capital, cities and towns are scored for their work to promote housing production, preserve open space, and more than two-dozen other categories. More than 200 communities are participating, to get to the head of the line for almost $500 million in state funding for capital projects, infrastructure and other needs.
More than $30 million in grants has been authorized to facilitate transit-oriented development; more than 100 towns have taken steps to modify zoning, conserve open space and diversify housing stock using $2.1 million in smart growth grants and technical assistance; dozens more have used the online smart growth toolkit to learn about everything from transferable development rights to accessory apartments. A new spirit of collaboration with MassHighway begins later this month with the debut of the new Highway Design Manual, which encourages attractive Main Streets with trees and sidewalks and bike lanes. Our 20-year transportation plan commits fully half of future funding to transit and requires zoning reform in all new corridors.
The communities taking advantage of all this have figured something out: It pays to grow this way. They get a range of home styles and prices so the young and the old and municipal workers can live in town. They get less congestion because fewer car trips are necessary. They get distinctive, historic town centers that attracted most of us to New England in the first place. And they save money, because the infrastructure supporting development not to mention the police, fire, and school bus service doesn't have to be so far-flung.
We do have a problem with home prices in the Commonwealth. But very quietly, almost stealthily, greater housing production and smart growth have started to happen at the same time. You just have to put down the binoculars to see it.