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AT ISSUE: Getting to yes

Development, Amy Casey, 2010, Acrylic on paper, 10" × 10".
Image: Courtesy of the artist



The conversion calculation

by Daniel Bluestone

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Great expectations are greeting Boston’s commitment to increasing the housing supply by 53,000 units by 2030. Affordable-housing advocates see stabilized rents. Community leaders anticipate stemming gentrification and preserving neighborhood heritage. Architects and planners see venues for transit-oriented development; innovations in energy and infrastructure sustainability; tests for new building materials; and new designs, like micro units for Boston millennials. Developers envision streamlined permitting and burgeoning opportunities on city-owned lots made available for new housing. 

But something is missing. Surprisingly, the effort fails to promote the creation of additional units within existing buildings. With new units in multiple-family housing often costing more than $400,000 each, we should be looking not at new housing to solve the supply and affordability crisis but at existing buildings. 

Think about it. Boston has thousands of dwellings that already have roofs, walls, foundations, and utilities in place. All we need is to settle on economical, sustainable, and elegant ways of adding apartments to these buildings. Most of our housing units were produced for households far larger than those currently occupying them. The average occupancy in a Boston dwelling is 2.49 residents. With increases in single, elderly, and millennial households, Mayor Martin Walsh anticipates fewer than two residents per new unit. Why build from scratch when we can simply create new units within existing walls? 

Although we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the precedents, they are all around us. J. E. Barlow & Company’s Brighton row house development, at Commonwealth Avenue and Wallingford Road, is one. In 1909, Barlow built 50 two-story brick row houses. Each had a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and hall on the first floor, with four bedrooms and a bathroom above. In 1917, one owner installed a bathroom on the first floor, converting his house into two apartments. Others soon followed suit: Several conversions came in the 1920s; the most recent was in 2012. Some carved three units out of the houses; two doctors and a dentist created live-work spaces with residences above ground-story offices. Today, only 22 houses have not been converted; there are 86 units in the place of the original 50. 

In 1892, architect Arthur G. Everett designed himself a rambling 2½-story Victorian house on Chestnut Hill Avenue. He lived there with five members of his family and two servants. By the 1970s, Everett’s house had four units; later, two additional units were added — six perfectly serviceable units in the place of one. The density of additional residents gives vibrancy and vitality
to the neighborhood. 

Boston has 15,000 triple-deckers. They have many common elements. Imagine streamlining a permitting and contractor trades program called Three + One, developing design templates for easily adding one more apartment to these buildings (adjusting zoning and building ordinances as necessary). Investing in existing dwellings stabilizes them while making them more useful. We would get to 53,000 “new” units less expensively, more quickly, and much more sustainably. Adopting this vision, we could easily zoom right past that ambitious goal. ■

Daniel Bluestone directs Boston University’s Preservation Studies program and inhabits the former living room and parlor of a 1911 apartment in The Norma, subdivided in 1957.

A base for the future

by Alexander D’Hooghe and Aaron Weller AIA

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The development model for new housing has become shortsighted. An increased demand for housing, particularly in urban areas, has created a marketplace with little or no risk, high returns on investments, and a priority on condominiums with inflated price tags.

With many Greater Boston municipalities grappling with rent destabilization and a lack of housing diversity, what can result when housing development is viewed as a long-term investment? How about the concept of “solids,” coined by Frank Bijdendijk, a former housing czar in the Netherlands? The concept continues the structure-infill ideas outlined by another Dutch architect, John Habraken, in his 1961 book Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing.

Solids are flexible and durable buildings that allow an investor to model economic viability over a long period. In contrast to selling fast and building cheap, a durable building is constructed with materials and details that age well and thus accrue value over time. Plus, a flexible building can accommodate changes in lifestyles or even uses, yielding profits over multiple generations.

Such a building — think of the Roman basilica type or industrial-era warehouses — requires higher initial investments than is currently normal, which can be offset if operating costs are low and by separating permanent or collective elements from temporary or individual ones. The initial investor of a solid building constructs the “base” elements (load-bearing structure, access and circulation, roof and exterior façade, common services and amenities), and the “fit-out” (partitions, finishes, fixtures, and so forth) is determined and paid for by another investor: the inhabitant.

The division between permanent and temporary elements results in a housing typology unlike today’s developments. One example is Solid 11 in Amsterdam (2010), designed by Tony Fretton Architects for the Dutch housing commission. The client required that its main building components have a 200-year life span, with a floor plan that could change according to user needs. More recently, our market building in Brussels features a double-height structure that can be filled internally with mezzanines or expanded vertically with additional floors.

The conventional building template consists of “towers” — rooms, units, or offices built of steel or wood-frame structures — above a concrete “podium” for parking, storage, cultural amenities, and commercial retail. The tower and podium are efficiently organized for particular uses, with every space programmed and compressed to maximize rentable or resale square footage. Ceilings are low, walls abundant, and windows correspond precisely to interior arrangements. In the future, it will make more sense to demolish and rebuild these buildings rather than adapt and reuse.

Solids, on the other hand, are not towers built on podiums but sustainable “shells” with generous floor-to-ceiling heights, open floor plans, long structural spans, high load-bearing capacity, and large mechanical and circulation areas. The spatial quality of solids is akin to the industrial warehouse that has successfully morphed into mixed housing. Unlike older buildings, solids are not a finite resource; they marry a durable, flexible building type with a development model that is economically feasible in the short and long term.

Imagine housing that provides a stable residence for precarious millennial or immigrant workers within open floor plans, movable partitions, common services, and shared resources; or multifamily units that adapt to changing tastes, growing families, or an aging population. Could light, “clean” industries, maker spaces, or live-work arrangements exist alongside, above, or below? Municipalities should invest in “base” buildings as long-term public assets that help resolve affordable-housing shortages today and — who knows? — can segue into an alternative use that meets a future need. ■

Alexander D’Hooghe is founding partner of ORG Permanent Modernity and associate professor in architecture and urbanism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Aaron Weller AIA is a licensed architect at ORG Permanent Modernity.

The level of the law

by Jerold S. Kayden

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Should everyone be able to move to the suburbs? Do people have a right to move anywhere? Housing and job markets say no. Many suburban communities around Boston lack housing at prices affordable to many families. Many Boston neighborhoods are also beyond financial reach. If this were only a matter of markets, one could criticize the economic system that promotes them and advocate for public subsidies. Does the conversation materially change if local zon­ing laws themselves, rather than an invisible hand, play a significant role in fostering exclusionary results?

That was the question facing the New Jersey Supreme Court 41 years ago in Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, which it answered by reading New Jersey’s state constitution to require that the suburbs relax their zoning to permit development of housing accommodating a fair share of the region’s lower-income needs. Thanks to this and subsequent rulings, according to housing advocates, more than 60,000 new units of affordable housing have been built in New Jersey’s suburbs. 

Mount Laurel was something of a riposte to the United States Supreme Court’s earlier refusal to find a similar requirement in the federal constitution’s due process and equal protection clauses. In the years after Mount Laurel, no other state court has followed suit. At one level, this is not surprising. Legally, the New Jersey decision bound only actors in New Jersey, without binding precedential effect elsewhere. What’s curious, however, is that no other state court found the Mount Laurel invitation suffi­ciently compelling that they looked deeply into their own constitutions to see if there was a Mount Laurel opinion lurking therein.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is one of the nation’s leading courts in finding rights in the state constitution before they are found in the federal constitution. One need only reference Goodridge v. Department of Health’s (2003) conclusion that barring an individual from the benefits of civil marriage solely based on sexual orientation violated the state constitution’s requirements of due process or equal protection. It is time for someone to put before the court the possibility that a suburb’s unwillingness to zone enough land for development of multifamily housing affordable to lower-income families is similarly problematic. 

The idea that unelected judges should make decisions based on state and federal constitutions overriding majority decision making by legisla­-
tures is always controversial. Chapter 40B, the Massachusetts legislature’s thoughtful response to local exclusionary zoning, has made inroads in forcing local governments to expand housing oppor­tunities throughout the Boston region, although many believe it is not nearly enough. A judicial examination based on fundamental ideas of equal treatment may yield more. As US Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., once wrote, “State constitutions . . . are a font of individual liberties, their protections often extending beyond those required by the [US] Supreme Court’s interpretation of federal law. The legal revolution which has brought federal law to the fore must not be allowed to inhibit the independent protective force of state law — for without it, the full realization of our liberties cannot be guaranteed.” Justice Brennan’s invitation continues to resonate. ■

Jerold S. Kayden, an urban planner and lawyer, is the Frank Backus Williams professor of urban planning and design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.

New family frames

by Matthew Littell

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In the search to house its booming population, Boston is looking everywhere. Given their preexisting density and relative stability, established residential neigh­bor­hoods typically have not been targeted for large-scale solutions to our 53,000-unit deficit. Recently, however, the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development has spearheaded efforts to tackle the shortage at a much finer grain. New proposals would allow the formerly forbidden Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), more commonly known as “granny flats” or “in-law” apartments, in existing owner-occupied one- to three-family buildings in select neighborhoods. The plan, which follows those in many other cities including Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; and, more recently, Cambridge, Massachusetts, wisely recognizes that Boston’s housing crisis cannot be solved through the creation of new developments alone: The city must also find ways to evolve its 19th-century residential fabric to meet the needs of its 21st-century occupants.

Like much of our zoning code, the prohibition against ADUs traces back to a mid-20th-century bias toward the nuclear family as the ideal unit of cohabitation. More-nuanced living arrangements that might have included the extra “half” unit for Grandma on the third floor, for example, did not fit the mold of inflexible zoning codes or public expectations about what constitutes a “family.” Today’s Boston is noticeably more socially complex and accepting. These additional units can provide the flexibility to support a growing population as well as a more diverse and vulnerable one. 

Consider not only the elderly but also recent college graduates who cannot afford their own apartments, an adult child with mental disabilities, young parents willing to exchange housing for child care, a young couple in need of a small, affordable apartment, or empty nesters seeking to downsize in place. These scenarios are not typically supported by new luxury construction in former industrial areas or downtown. Allowing homeowners more freedom to adapt their existing homes to changing needs can promote long-term occupancy and neighborhood stability.

As the city proceeds cautiously, it will no doubt encounter the usual resistance to any form of densification, including concerns about parking, traffic, displacement, and change of neighborhood character. Beyond that, acceptance will require a more fundamental shift in our relationship with our neighbors and how we negotiate the balance of public and private in the intimate space between residential dwellings. What does it mean, for instance, for a unit to have its front door in the backyard? Our zoning code has for decades safeguarded a very traditional and uniquely American ideal of how and where residential occupation presents itself to the public, where front doors are located, and the distance to the property next door. Accessory Dwelling Units will challenge those norms by occupying the remaining layers of underused space in backyards, attics, and garages, and create new kinds of overlap between new kinds of neighbors. 

In a city that tends to resist change, acceptance of ADUs will require time but ultimately could result in richer and more inclusive forms of residential life. Alone, ADUs will not provide the raw numbers of units the city so desperately needs, but they can help. More important, they can set the stage for long-term preservation and adaptation of sensitive neighborhoods that continue to struggle with the pressures of Boston’s extra­ordinary growth. ■

Matthew Littell is a principal at Utile, where he leads projects in affordable housing and planning. Last year, he directed a research studio on ADUs at Northeastern University.

Beacons in the distance

by Theresa Park

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Food, clothing, and shelter make up the holy trinity of basic needs. Yet even in the 21st-century United States, people struggle to find adequate housing that is within their means. For cities to thrive, they need to offer housing options for people of all income levels and household types. Those options also need to be in close proximity to jobs and a decent quality of life. As Boston struggles to meet this need within its tight 48 square miles, Gateway Cities already are equipped to lend a hand. 

For centuries, Gateway Cities — roughly defined as older industrial communities such as New Bedford, Lawrence, or Holyoke — have offered immigrants a place to launch new lives and build on their aspirations for a better future. To these new residents, homeownership is an important first rung on the ladder of opportunity. Yet the abundance of amenities and housing opportunities that Gateway Cities offer still remains unknown to many. 

The shape and form of these older cities are what all communities are striving toward: smart-growth, mixed-use, and pedestrian-focused for a multigenerational population. And they are a housing bargain: According to Banker & Tradesman, the year-to-date median sale price in Lawrence for a single-family home is $229,000 versus $3.24 million in downtown Boston. They are places where you can find work opportunities, invest in an education, meet friends for dinner and entertainment, raise a family, and rest your weary head at night.

I speak from firsthand experience. My family moved to Massachusetts from Korea in the 1970s. The city of Lawrence was our first home — and it allowed us to move from a small apartment to a duplex purchased with another Korean family in a brand-new subdivision. Although we eventually moved out of the city, without the opportunity to find that affordable apartment and home, we might not have been able to move past that first rung. I remain convinced that if not for my family’s ability to find a place where we could live within our means, we would have struggled. Instead, within that first generation, my parents’ four children have become professionals in real estate, engineering, urban planning, and education — the great American success story.

About 80 percent of the people who live in Lawrence work elsewhere. Jobs in Boston are being filled by people traveling from other communities, which means lower-cost cities within reasonable commuting distance are helping Boston meet its housing needs. What could go a long way to ease Boston’s housing crunch — and help Gateway Cities achieve their full potential — would be to increase investment in public infrastructure and transportation, whereby trains and buses could offer greater frequency of service, with stops that match journey-to-work patterns. 

Because Gateway Cities have always offered a welcoming beacon to new immigrants, they are frequently seen as disadvantaged from a socio-economic standpoint. What the numbers do not reveal, however, is the beautiful diversity of people, the sheer goodness and generosity of residents, a coexistence of neighbors from absolutely every walk of life, and a can-do spirit born from years of overcoming long odds. 

Those who are late to realize the beauty of Gateway Cities will have missed a great opportunity to be agents of change in a dynamic and innovative renaissance of old postindustrial cities. Their past glory is being reawakened every day, as new residents mix with old to shape and transform the cities of the future. ■

Theresa Park is an urban planner with 20 years of local and regional experience. It has taken her that long to work her way back to the City of Lawrence as director of its Office of Planning and Development.