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Provoking change

Increasing Boston's affordable housing stock

On Tuesday, July 25, 2017, about 25 members of the BSA community and general public gathered at BSA Space to hear from the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab Summer Fellows about their research projects. This summer, the iLab hosted four Fellows who explored the affordable housing application process; policies around compact apartments; co-operative living as a viable model for cities, and how to support it through policy; and additional dwelling units (ADUs) as a way to add affordable units to neighborhoods.

Each of the fellows spoke briefly about the work that they had completed this summer for the iLab. Monique Gibbs, a Masters of Public Administration candidate at Northeastern University, spoke about streamlining the City of Boston’s affordable housing application portal. Other cities, such as New York, have one centralized location where people seeking to apply for affordable housing can go. In contrast, Boston has a variety of different systems, with scattered deadlines and requirements. Streamlining the process would not only make it easier for everyone, but the easier application will ensure that Boston’s most vulnerable populations are being served by this vital resource. Monique expressed a hope that by the end of 2017, all new listings for affordable housing in the city will use the simplified, centralized application she helped to develop.

Riddhi Shah, a Masters in Urban Planning candidate at MIT, spoke about her work this summer evaluating the projects that have already been done by the iLab on compact housing, and beginning to think about how to craft effective policies for compact units. With past projects like the Urban Housing Unit and the Garrison Trotter Housing Innovation Competition, the iLab has done a lot of work to advance the conversation around compact units. Riddhi spoke about the community amenities that are necessary when living space is limited: transit access, gym access, reduced rent, community rooms for larger gatherings, shared workspaces, and others. She posed this question to the audience: beyond the square footage limits, what else is necessary to craft a good compact policy?

Joe Backer is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. His work for the iLab this summer has focused on co-ops as a style of affordable housing, and he is the first to admit that he was unfamiliar with the cooperative housing model when he began. “That’s one of the issues,” he explained, “that there is a lot of unfamiliarity with this model across the city.” Some of the issues he has been exploring are financing cooperative units, as well as management and governance structures that will ensure continued operation of the communities. Joe has spent significant time this summer learning from local leaders within the cooperative living community, and gathering information about how the City of Boston might aid the co-op community through new policy that formalizes aspects of it.

Working on additional dwelling units is Claire Summers, a Masters in Urban Planning candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The iLab is currently in the planning and development stages of a pilot program that will allow homeowners in select Boston neighborhoods to add an additional, independent rental unit onto their existing homes. Two weeks ago, Claire collaborated with the BSA Housing Committee to run a design charrette with the goal of producing sample designs for homeowners looking to carve an additional unit out of their houses. The charrette produced five sample designs, and Claire is continuing to seek feedback from homeowners and design professionals on the program. The eventual goal will be to have ADUs allowed permanently in all neighborhoods of Boston, though that point is still a long way off.

This event is part of an ongoing partnership between the BSA Foundation and the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab. Through this partnership, a diverse array of programs, exhibitions, workshops, and competitions have explored new ideas and challenges surrounding affordable housing in Boston. 

Images courtesy of BSA staff.


To learn more about how the BSA Foundation is making an impact in communities, please come to BSA Space for a one hour “tour” of BSA Foundation programs. On the tour, board members and volunteers will tell stories about how Foundation programs, and the power of design, are positively changing the lives of real people. Foundation Conversations are held on the second Wednesday of every month. Events are free, but seats are limited. Check for upcoming dates and to reserve your seat.