Boston is at a crossroads—one that is every bit as transformative as the epic battle between the Brahmin establishment and the emerging Irish political class in the 19th century. When, in 2013, Mayor Thomas M. Menino decided to step down after 20 bumptious years at the helm, 12 contenders vied for the office, endlessly debating how to balance the "old" and the "new" Boston. Veteran political analyst and WGBH public radio pundit Peter Kadzis observed that only one issue commanded the candidates' consensus: the housing crisis. "On that, you didn't see the usual sniping and cheap shots. The issue is just too serious."


2013 Population: 645,966
2010 Population: 617,594

2014 Median home price/sq. foot: $455
2011 Median home price/sq. foot: $375

2014 Median rent per month: $2,405
2011 Median rent per month: $1,975

2012 Percentage of renters spending more
than 35% of income on housing: 41.9%
2000'2010 New housing units added: 20,000


By pledging to bring about "one Boston," labor leader and Irish-Catholic state legislator Martin J. Walsh won the 2013 mayoral contest with support from the old Irish establishment and the new-immigrant and African-American vote. It remains to be seen whether the new mayor's calls for unity—his recognition that cities do not flourish, economically or culturally, without engaging the full spectrum of civic participants—will translate into solid accomplishment. What is clear, though, is that a more united Boston cannot be forged without affordable housing.

When people say "Boston," they usually include the cities of Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline, by reason of history, contiguity, and shared density. The population of the city proper, 645,966, is brought up to around 890,791—about the size of San Francisco—with the inclusion of its three sisters. The city of Boston, however, has been the prime beneficiary of two decades-long projects: the Boston Harbor cleanup project (ongoing) and the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, or "Big Dig" (completed in 2007). Together these opened up downtown to the waterfront and to new land primed for economic, residential, and recreational development relatively undisturbed by NIMBY conflicts.

Mayor Menino's signature project was to redevelop the industrial South Boston waterfront as the Seaport District. He anchored the 1,000-acre area with Rafael Viñoly Architects' 2004 Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and multiple high-end hotels. The project turned Boston into one of the country's top-10 convention sites. The Menino administration also helped the cramped but popular Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) move from Back Bay to an acclaimed cantilevered structure by Diller Scofidio + Renfro. The firm's first built project in the United States, it abuts a new, still-growing 36-mile Harbor Walk.

Next, the mayor conjured the tech side of new Boston almost from whole cloth. In 2010, Menino marked out the Seaport District for a new innovation initiative—to date, the largest innovation district in the country. Facing land pressures in Cambridge's IT- and biotech-rich Kendall Square, near MIT, this year Vertex Pharmaceuticals moved its headquarters to what is now dubbed the Seaport Innovation District, opening two 18-story LEED-Gold towers designed by Elkus Manfredi and Tsoi/Kobus. In March, its developer, the Fallon Company, broke ground on a third commercial tower adjacent to the ICA. Anchor tenant Goodwin Procter, a law firm, will relocate from the Financial District. Also nearby is the new District Hall, designed by Hacin + Associates, described as "the world's first freestanding public innovation center." Across the way, an area of once-decrepit older warehouses called Fort Point has morphed from a down-low arts community to a warren of co-working spaces; light-industrial, design, advertising, green-tech, and startup firms; and housing. All in all, some 5,000 jobs and 200 workplaces of various sizes have materialized in the Seaport Innovation District since its 2010 launch, and the numbers pledged are growing expeditiously.

So too is housing demand, which is being met mainly by high-rise luxury-condo developers in the Seaport Innovation District, throughout downtown, and beyond. To accommodate young "creative" workers with live-work sensibilities, and to take pressure off multi-bedroom middle-class housing, the city has issued permits for 353 so-called micro units of under 450 square feet in the Seaport Innovation District. In what has been called the "micro-housing paradox," rent is nonetheless soaring—for example, to $1,200 for 337 square feet and $2,450 for 597 square feet in the Fort Point Factory 63 complex—thanks in part to the market for such spaces among older adults with more means.

The waterfront's success is fueling other changes. Although the Financial District (just across the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway) has lost longstanding tenants to the Seaport and Back Bay, its predominantly '70s-era office space is attracting new companies, such as PayPal and smaller firms priced out of Fort Point. Meanwhile, the older commercial center will soon be surrounded by high-rise residential development. A few blocks away in Downtown Crossing—the once-bustling central retail district—Millennium Partners is erecting a 1.1 million-square-foot mixed-use project, which includes a slender 56-story tower with luxury condos and retail, designed by Handel Architects. "The Hole," as locals call the site, sat fallow for six years after the iconic Filene's department store, designed by Daniel Burnham in 1912, closed and was partially demolished. Millennium has preserved the facade and is fitting out its interior with offices and retail. On the other side of the Financial District, CBT Architects' 29-story 45 Stuart Street project, with 404 luxury rentals, is under way.

Under Menino's watch, Boston has been gradually coaxed from its traditional aversion to height—for better or worse. On the northwest side of the city, near the Big Dig–created Zakim Bridge, the 14-story Lovejoy Wharf project, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects and ADD Inc., is rising over the banks of the Charles. A model of transit-oriented development located near the North Station commuter-transit hub, it will be the first multi-unit residential project in the city without parking and will also house Converse world headquarters, which is relocating from suburban North Andover. In the pipeline as well are six more residential high-rise projects, including a hotel-and-condo development at 1 Dalton Street, designed by a partnership of Cambridge Seven Associates and John Hancock Tower architect Henry Cobb, near Back Bay's Christian Science Plaza. At 60 stories, it will be tallest residential structure in the city—at least so far.

With its knowledge-based economy and the rising market for pedestrian-friendly urbanism, Boston is undergoing the largest building spree since the Great Fire of 1872. Some have grumbled that it is disproportionately centered in the downtown core, but as Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) Deputy Director for Urban Design Prataap Patrose, points out, "The breakdown in investment is about half and half." Major construction is also under way in the Fenway, Copley, Longwood Medical, and Northeastern and Boston University areas, as well as in the Roxbury Dudley Square neighborhood, and near Brighton's WGBH studios, where New Balance is building a new world headquarters as part of a development called Boston Landing.

Boston officials take pride in having the largest percentage of "affordable housing" of any major U.S. city: 19.4 percent (according to a 2013 report), compared with a 5 percent national average. By this they mean subsidized housing (in which residents must meet income requirements), including new multi-unit (10 or more) construction mandated, under Menino, to be 13 percent affordable or to have fees paid into a fund for building low-cost housing elsewhere. While some of these are earmarked for moderate to middle incomes, the approach doesn't come close to alleviating the middle-class-housing crunch in Boston, where the median household income is $53,136 and the median owner-occupied housing price is $374,700. The city's cost of living since 2005 has risen twice as fast as homeowner incomes, and three times as fast for renters. (It doesn't help that there have been questions about how the affordable-housing fund has been managed.) This means, for example, only 7 percent of South Boston's plentiful family-size housing is accessible to middle-income households.

Economist Barry Bluestone, of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, who puts out a periodic Greater Boston Housing Report Card, recently documented the dramatic 25 percent increase of the 20-to-24-year-old population since the 1990s. During the same time, the population of older Millennials of child-rearing age dropped by almost 11 percent. Similar trends are afoot in Cambridge and Somerville. "What is happening," Bluestone said in an interview, "is that students, young professionals, and multi-generational immigrants are doubling up in three- or four-bedroom apartments and pricing single families out of the market." It is a classic supply-and-demand scenario that compelled Menino, on his way out of office, to call for an increase of 30,000 housing units by 2020.

His successor, Walsh, has pledged to reform the BRA, the only such entity in the country that combines planning and economic development functions and thus, some people charge, gives mayors too much incentive to help private developers, to the exclusion of public planning interests. The new mayor has also convened a special housing committee to address the city's mid-market housing pressures.

Meanwhile, gentrification pressures are mounting across lower-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods such as Roxbury, parts of Dorchester, and Mattapan. Here and elsewhere, federally subsidized privately developed affordable housing projects time out after 15 years, while BRA-funded programs expire after 30. In a red-hot real-estate market like Boston's, it is all too tempting to opt out and revert to market rates. But at least one section of Roxbury/North Dorchester, more than half of the 62-acre "Dudley Triangle," is protected. In the aftermath of the 1970s busing crisis, the nonprofit Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative formed to reverse the neighborhood's legacy of disinvestment, and later launched a model urban-community land trust on city-owned land—the first with eminent-domain authority. The Dudley land trust is now home to 225 units of neo-traditional affordable housing (with 250 more in the pipeline) a new community center, a charter school, and an urban farming project. It remains to be seen whether, and how, the Walsh administration will stem gentrification in other nearby low-income neighborhoods.

Walsh's own legacy project may lie in another one of Boston's far-flung neighborhoods: Lower Allston—an area rich with middle-class housing—where Harvard University owns 50 percent of the land and has long-standing plans to expand. In anticipation of the expansion, the city of Boston and the university engaged in a land swap, in 2007, that involved moving a low-to-moderate-income nonprofit housing complex—built some 40 years ago—to another site called Charlesview Residences in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood, which expanded its size and includes both affordable rentals and market-rate condos.

Whether Mayor Walsh, who rode a populist tide to victory, can build enough housing to meet the demand caused by Boston's influx of newcomers—many of them affluent—remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though: with Boston's longstanding history of housing and land-use innovation—from building the country's first subway system and now the largest innovation district, to constructing a model community land trust—the city has an abundance of experience to draw from, should it summon the political will.

Catherine Tumber is a visiting scholar at Northeastern University's School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and author of Small, Gritty, and Green: The Promise of America's Smaller Industrial Cities in a Low-Carbon World.

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