Zoning, the town hall they disagree on this boost to affordable housing?
Boston Zoning Appeal Board keep rejecting one of the Walsh administration’s affordable housing solutions, and experts say Newton should be the model to avoid this kind of traffic jam at Boston City Hall.
A spate of ZBA rejections for proposed basement housing in East Boston and Charlestown have raised eyebrows in recent months for apparently directly opposing Walsh. The outgoing mayor’s administration promotes density and includes basement residential conversions in its program of additional housing units in order to generate a more affordable housing stock.
Christine Araujo, President of the Board of Directors, warned in december that basement units could lead to overcrowding, but housing advocates argue that density is a crucial part of making Boston a more affordable place to live – that increased supply should drive prices down.
“It gets pretty frustrating for some people who feel like they’re following the rules and yet somehow they’re not getting any help,” said Lydia Edwards, Boston city councilor whose district includes East. Boston and Charlestown. “We want the government to function well. That was the purpose of the petition because it was not as cohesive as we wanted it to be. ”
Edwards filed a bylaw petition last year regarding ZBA reform that called for, among other things, regular training to keep city employees and appointees up to date on evolving policies and guidelines. Walsh then implemented the reforms by decree. It isn’t always bad if there is a mismatch between policy makers and agencies, Edwards said.
But that does not mean that it is giving up its desire to rationalize the city’s initiatives for more housing. Edwards filed a hearing order earlier this month for an update. “I haven’t had someone call me to celebrate with me having [approved for] a basement unit again, ” Edwards said. “There were so many people who gave up early on.
For density to have a chance, some proposals shouldn’t have to go to the zoning board in the first place, a housing analyst said.
“It shouldn’t be political or 10 people coming to say yes or no.” It’s too arbitrary, ” said Richard taylor, director of the Center for Real Estate at the University of Suffolk. “This should be clarified so that the market knows how to secure [an additional or accessory dwelling unit]. ”
Newton adopted its secondary suites by-law in 2017, and housing advocates see it as one of the most progressive in the state. Apartments can go from 250 to 1200 square feet, depending on whether or not they are attached to the main house. The owner must live in one of the units.
Part of the motivation behind Newton’s decision was to clear a path towards legalization and code compliance for the estimated 1,000 illegal secondary dwellings across the city, according to a 2018 report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. While it’s not clear how many illegal units there are in Boston, the city has a similar logic behind its mayoral-sanctioned program.
“People were already doing it,” Edwards said. “We are trying to move them forward. It’s about making sure what we have is safe. ”
Newton’s measure is also de jure, which means that an applicant does not have to appear before a zoning board for approval; they just need to get a special permit.
“Newton has a very clearly defined system. You don’t even go to the zoning board. You’re filling out an application because it’s not a zoning issue, ”Taylor said. “I think it should be removed from zoning and [the Inspectional Services Department] with clear conditions. ”
Cambridge City Council adopted an ordinance in October which allows the simplified creation of “permanently affordable” housing which is denser than what could be authorized under the current zoning.
Boston’s own approach to density seems increasingly confused.
The Walsh administration appears to be promoting the conversion of basements on its Accessory Housing Unit Website, where it describes homeowner eligibility and building code requirements and promotes a zero-interest loan program to help cover construction costs.
What it doesn’t reflect is the ZBA’s apparent reluctance to approve basement housing.
“We see so much of these basements in Eastie that it just doesn’t make sense,” Araujo said. at a hearing in December for a basement renovation on Paris Street in East Boston. “We are not trying to go back to those crowded days of yesteryear. ”
The council approved the whole project on the condition that it does not include a bedroom in the basement. The ZBA has made similar requests for projects in other neighborhoods like Charlestown.
The ZBA has rejected the Globe’s multiple interview requests for clarification on its position on the basement unit, but a city councilor takes note of the disconnection. Edwards is among the most vocal at City Hall about the need for ZBA reform. The lack of follow-through on a city-wide initiative such as support for basement units and increasing density is just the latest in Edwards’ push for more transparency .
“The ZBA continues to be a primary source of voter calls and emails to my office,” Edwards said in a statement regarding the ZBA hearing order.
The ZBA may not like the idea of density for fear of overcrowding, but cities across the United States are increasingly turning to various levels of zoning that favor more housing in order to lower the cost of housing. life. It’s important to remember that “density” doesn’t always mean a 60-story residential tower.
Minneapolis mainly single-family zoning prohibited in 2018 as a method to reduce racial segregation and pave the way for more affordable housing. The new city plan paves the way for three-unit housing projects on plots previously zoned for one house.
The Brookings Institute calls this method “soft density”; single-family zoning is gradually giving way to duplex and four-family developments. The plan also boosts supply, cuts costs and retains the character of an existing neighborhood, according to the reflection.
Newton’s own housing plan took this ideology into account, but planners also point out that density and secondary suites are not the only solutions to Boston’s housing crisis.
Jennifer molinsky, a senior associate researcher at Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies who worked on a previous secondary housing proposal for Newton, said density is only one piece of the puzzle.
“I think it’s a viable thing to do. It is one of the many tools in a toolkit for expanding housing options in a community, especially options that are relatively more affordable. It does not solve the housing problem per se, ”she said. “There is no silver bullet, but several of these solutions combined could make a difference. “
Cameron Sperance can be reached at [email protected]. Subscribe to The Globe’s free real estate newsletter – our weekly roundup on buying, selling and designing – at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @globehomes.