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Roof, hearth, threshold

In the 1980s, I lived in a three-room apartment on the first floor of a triple-decker in East Boston. The rent was wonderfully low even for those days: $85 a month. Who cared if the heat came from a gas stove and I had to brush my teeth at the kitchen sink? The place was affordable for a person making what we used to call “movement wages” — social worker, community organizer, artist, activist. 

Today, the average rent for a one-bedroom flat in East Boston is about $1,600.

That means a single tenant would need to make at least $64,000 a year to avoid being “cost burdened,” or paying more than 30 percent of income on housing. It means thousands of working people can’t afford to live in this modest neighborhood. And don’t even get me started on the new luxury apart­ments on East Boston’s waterfront that command $4,000 a month, or the landlords evicting immigrant families without cause in order to triple the rents. 

Gentrification is just one of the factors driving the affordability crisis in Greater Boston, where more than half of all residents are now breaching that 30 percent income threshold. With real wages stagnant and housing costs rising faster every year, the center, as the poet said, cannot hold. 

This issue of ArchitectureBoston, the fourth in our “Year of the Plan” series, examines the role the design community can play in untangling one of the region’s most intractable dilemmas: Where can the people live? According to a new report by the Urban Land Institute, Greater Boston will need 200,000 new units of housing over the next 15 years in order to serve a growing economy — including 108,000 units for lower-income workers. 

A combustible mix of economic and political factors have combined to fuel housing inflation, not all of them unique to Massachusetts. The federal government stopped being a partner to communities in developing affordable housing at least three decades ago. In a 1994 referendum, Massachusetts voters exacerbated the problem by ending rent control, even though the three communities that had the system voted to keep it. The state’s zoning laws have not been fully updated since 1975, and a bill that would have lifted restrictions on multifamily housing and dense development, among other solutions, died at the end of this legislative session. 

The question is what to do about it now. We don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, from millennial villages and tiny houses to communal living and accessory dwelling units. We are rethinking public-housing projects into mixed-income develop­ments and leveraging public lands to reduce development costs. And it can all be done without sacrificing design excellence or sustainability: Check out the work of Michael Pyatok FAIA or the inventive approaches our contributors offer in “Getting to yes.” 

Still, one-off, incremental fixes won’t be enough. Boston mayor Martin Walsh has set a goal of 53,000 new housing units (not all of them affordable) in his Imagine Boston 2030 plan, and the city is on track with slightly more than 10,000 units as of this writing. Gateway cities offer another way into the market, if the state will invest more in the schools, trans­portation, and public realm in those communities. 

But how about Boston’s leafier suburbs, which hold on too fiercely to exclusionary zoning, or the region’s employers, who don’t connect the dots between their workers’ grueling commutes and paying a living wage? The affordability gap, after all, can be closed either by lowering the price of the units or by raising the incomes of residents. Everybody complains about the cost of housing, but not enough people are doing anything about it. That needs to change now. ■