Dear Mayor Wu and Chief Jemison:
We feel obligated to comment on a counterproductive letter sent recently to Mayor Michelle Wu by a group of neighborhood association leaders. In it, they admonish the Mayor for allowing “continued off-kilter real estate development,” characterize city officials administering development reform efforts as “the city autocracy,” and suggest that the Mayor’s new “Squares+Streets” zoning initiative favors “bureaucratic centralized authoritarian rulemaking.”
Their statement concludes with a tone of electoral menace, suggesting that “stormy skies” now greet the Mayor halfway through her first term, and that only by following the authors’ prescriptions can she expect past supporters to “feel great” about voting for her again.
We at Abundant Housing Massachusetts (AHMA) envision a future where housing is plentiful for people of all incomes; where we stop the relentlessly increasing housing costs that drive de facto segregation in our neighborhoods; and where land-use policy facilitates the creation of safe, walkable, and low-carbon communities. The sentiments expressed by Boston renters’ direct experiences speaks to the urgency of this that can’t afford to wait longer. The sentiments expressed by these leaders run sharply counter to all of these goals and express a pessimism about tackling our city’s housing crisis which we do not share.
We do agree with the letter’s authors that real estate development in Boston has been “off-kilter,” but for starkly different reasons than the ones they offer. From 2010 to 2019, the City of Boston approved 45.8 housing units per 1,000 residents. This rate of housing approvals put Boston just above the rate of Columbus, Ohio, whose metropolitan area’s population is less than half of Greater Boston’s. Worse, Boston’s rate of housing approvals has been decelerating recently, with 18,790 units approved in total between 2018 and 2022—a 6.5% decrease in production relative to the prior five-year period. That Boston’s housing production has chronically undershot demand is evidenced by the city’s acute housing shortage today. As of 2022, the city’s rental vacancy stood at 3.4% while homeowner vacancy hit 1.2% citywide. This paradigm of scarcity has fueled a pitiless bidding war in the Boston housing market. Over 50% of the city’s renters paid more than 30% of their income to landlords in 2022. Meanwhile, the transition to homeownership has become impossible for all but the wealthiest Bostonians. Critically, the brunt of the cost of this situation has been borne by those with the least, with poorer households paying out greater percentages of their income at higher rates.
It is therefore disappointing to read where these neighborhood leaders focus their ire. They attack the Mayor’s “Squares+Streets” initiative—a measured attempt to increase zoning flexibility in select areas served by transit—as “centralized authoritarian rulemaking.” They unfairly label City staff advancing “Squares+Streets” through a robust Phase I of community engagement—including 24 pop-up events, 2 youth engagement workshops, 29 community planning meetings and 4 public zoning meetings—as comprising part of a “city autocracy.” They complain in one breath that Boston’s affordable housing program is underproducing units, then, in another, confusingly lambaste the commercial development needed to finance it. They even object to the Mayor’s efforts to streamline the permitting processes that both affordable and market housing projects must navigate.
At some level we see this letter from these neighborhood association leaders as typical of the misguided attitudes and obstructionist tactics that have contributed to our housing crisis for so long. The authors offer no objective principles for evaluating neighborhood change in the City of Boston, nor any principled alternatives to the Mayor’s plans. Instead, they unfortunately cast the deliberate attempts of a duly elected mayor to respond to the housing shortage as illegitimate and wrongheaded.
By placing the prerogatives of neighborhood incumbents above the causes and human consequences of our housing crisis, the authors—like too many before them—propose to continue sacrificing the housing stability of Boston’s citizens to perpetuate a failing status quo that too often grants them personal vetoes over change. A world in which these kinds of attitudes continue to stifle change is one in which the housing shortage grinds on unabated and Boston becomes even more unaffordable.
AHMA and its members stand unapologetically for increased housing production for residents of all income levels. We applaud the Mayor’s efforts to legalize ADUs citywide and we support the “Squares+Streets” initiative as a constructive first step in increasing zoning flexibility across the city. Most importantly, we reject the attempts of any group to prop up a failed status quo at Boston residents’ expense given the scale of the housing crisis we face.
Executive Director, Abundant Housing MA (AHMA)