Many have complained over the past several years that housing prices have made homeownership an impossibility for all but the very wealthy. This isn’t totally accurate, failing to take into account historically-low mortgage loan interest rates and rising personal income levels, in my opinion. In fact, homeownership has increased, percentage-wise, across all age-groups, ethnicities, and income levels, to an historic high.

One thing I do agree on is that one big problem over the past decade has been a lack of supply.

This is true in the city of Boston, and in the suburbs, too.

In the city, the most popular neighborhoods, the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and South End, were basically “hands-off” to any new development, except for some high-profile, high-end projects such as Atelier 505, the Belvedere, and Trinity Place. The most expensive properties – the Grandview and the new Ritz-Carlton Towers – were actually built outside of this area, right up beside the sketchy Combat Zone and Downtown Crossing.

Boston dealt with the rise in demand over the past several years by renovating existing housing. In the highly desirable, but historically-protected neighborhoods, the boom years brough renovation of existing Victorian bow-fronts in the South End, and existing brownstones in the Back Bay. In South Boston and Dorchester, where the housing stock was mostly multi-family, three-deckers, rentals were converted to condominiums, and sold off by small developers / investors.

Still, prices rose, because money was cheap, and demand was high.

In my opinion, Boston lost a golden opportunity.

However, can you really blame a government for what happens or doesn’t happen in a city? I don’t know. To a certain extent, maybe.

If you look to New York City, you see what a mayor can do, for good or bad.

That city has seen an extraordinary amount of construction, since 2001. Still, it seems as though they can’t supply the demand. Each year brings more people to live in the city, and now the outer-boroughs are seeing the benefits of growth, specifically, Brooklyn. Meanwhile, the mayor has laid out plans to create over 64,000 units of low and middle income housing, over the coming years.

I’m not ignoring the downsides of growth, I’m just focusing on the benefits.

In Boston, there is only so much one can do to alleviate the “high” cost of housing. If you start by drawing a big “X” across the most popular neighborhoods, that doesn’t leave you with much, does it?

Well, you’ll end up with towers of high-end condos, right?

The city’s response was to increase the amount of “affordable-housing” units in each development, to something north of 10%.

Which made a very few people, very happy.

But, which did nothing to make the city more affordable for the vast majority.

It’s a dilemma, isn’t it?

Now, as the market slows, buyers should rejoice, right?

Maybe, but I don’t see the market slowing down enough to make housing more affordable for the solidly-middle class, anytime soon.

Sometimes I feel that’s okay, that we should just let the market rule. If the city ends up being for the upwardly mobile, so be it. (Keep in mind, again, I’m not talking about the entire city, just the downtown area. Dorchester, Roslindale, Hyde Park, West Roxbury, East Boston, Allston, Brighton, and even South Boston are a different world. Separate the two, in your mind.)

Say to yourself – I’m not happy with the current situation. Housing costs too much, and there’s not enough supply.

Then ask yourself, what can possibly be done? Affordable housing set-asides don’t solve the problem, at all. Building luxury high-rises don’t solve the problem. (I can argue it does help, but I won’t, for now.)

Then, what?

In a city where it ends up being cheaper to build a hotel and condos on top of a man-made platform over an eight-lane highway, than it is to buy a piece of existing land, things are terribly out of whack.

When you complain about the state of things, who do you expect to come to the rescue?

The government? Not ours. The people? Those who live in the Back Bay, South End, and Beacon Hill want things exactly as they are now.

Then, who?

Well, if I ask 100 readers that question, there will be 100 answers, depending on your own point of view.

And, that should be okay. What you need is someone, let’s call him or her a “leader”, to, first, ask the question, and then, second, work with everyone, when they give you all their answers.

We don’t have that.

Further reading:

Some people think government can solve the “housing crisis”. I disagree, but only on semantics. I don’t think it’s a problem for government to solve, it’s a problem calling out for leadership.

How to House the Middle Class – By Alexander Garvin, The New York Sun

Even with rising land prices, it is still possible to build decent, affordable housing at market rates, without government subsidies. In both cities and suburbs, developers can produce low- and mid-rise, stick-built multi-family houses and apartment buildings at a relatively low cost. These may not be the suburban dream of a house with a yard, but they could be good housing for working people, without costing taxpayers a cent. If set in a well-funded, well-designed public realm, the housing can also be very attractive.

This will not solve all our country’s problems of housing. It will not for example, provide housing for people of very low income — that is only financially possible with government housing subsidies. It will, however, produce housing for the middle- and working-classes — housing that is no longer being produced at anything like the quantities that are necessary to maintain high rates of home ownership.

Cities are evolving organisms by their nature. The future does not lie in trying to stop that growth, nor in a false dichotomy between city and suburb — both are different parts of the same organism. The promise of a brighter future lies in government investment in the public realm to shape that change. Only then can we create a future that everyone can afford.

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Updated: January 2018

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