Selling Affordability is Crucial in Metro Boston

by Taylor Williams

With a pressing demand for new housing in the Boston area and communities struggling to provide affordable options to mitigate the effect of rising prices, the barriers to providing new affordable multifamily properties remain significant.

Here in the Boston region, the scale of the problem is immense. Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently declared a need for 185,000 new units of housing over next 10 or so years in the 15 cities and towns that comprise the inner core of the metro area — just to keep up with expected growth.

Some of the integral variables and processes associated with multifamily development, like land acquisition and construction costs, can be tangibly quantified. But harder to define is the often unpredictable process of securing public approvals, wherein a development team must navigate the sometimes contentious ground between neighborhood groups and regulatory agencies.

Eric J. Robinson, RODE Architects

Locally Scaled Solutions

In 2018, Related Beal completed The Beverly, a 239-unit, income-restricted project in downtown Boston, capturing headlines that heralded this significant model for addressing housing affordability in the region.

Landmark projects like The Beverly represent great strides toward addressing the housing affordability crisis and have helped raise the awareness of efforts to develop real solutions to the affordable housing issue. But the fact remains, cities cannot rely solely on singular, monumental projects such as this one.

The majority of new development in the Boston area will necessarily be located outside the dense inner core in neighborhoods like Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Allston and East Boston.

Development in these neighborhoods is confronted by a different set of constraints, where the minimum density required to make a project feasible must occur within an existing,
smaller-scale context.

The impact of these larger-scale developments can be mitigated to some extent by locating projects in closer proximity to higher density corridors and clustering them near transit nodes. Inevitably, though, teams must directly engage with the host communities whose approvals they seek.

Development teams should view this process as an opportunity to build coalitions or partnerships with communities that — by ensuring their concerns are heard and protected — can unlock the needed higher density and scale.

Rigorous Collaboration

Development teams must also be prepared to embark on long processes to secure approvals from the local jurisdiction. Communities are particularly strong in the region — a check on the “urban renewal” forces of decades past.

Communities are also strongly invested in maintaining the character of their neighborhoods and have strong incentives to resist new developments that threaten to adversely change the character of their communities.

Any hope for successfully navigating the approvals process requires seeing this strength as an asset. In fact, some of RODE’s most successful partnerships have arisen out of community review.

Architects and developers are most successful when they establish a shared language with the community and find ways to create sets of goals that are mutually beneficial for both parties. The conversations that flow from these channels create a shared feeling of ownership in the success of the project.

In East Boston, where change has happened rapidly in recent years, particularly along the waterfront, Transom Real Estate successfully worked with the community to develop a project on Bremen Street that represents a benefit for the neighborhood. In executing the project, Transom Real Estate worked diligently to implement a series of benefits that would support the neighborhood and its local base of renters, which overlapped considerably with the local artist community.

Wider sidewalks and enhanced crossings have improved the public realm. Publicly accessible common areas complement artists’ live/work units and a supporting maker space — all in exchange for a reasonably taller and denser building. While the final product was not perfect for everyone, all members of the project team agreed that the proposal has merit and has gone through a successful process.

The cultivation of these relationships requires a significant investment of time and energy early on in a project’s life. This should be anticipated when planning for a project’s timeline and budget.

Mission-Driven Development

Much of the angst that colors the conversations between neighborhoods and developers stems from concerns of displacement, exclusion and affordability. Developers that commit to providing high levels of affordability take a significant first step toward acknowledging those misgivings and can leverage that recognition into a trusted channel of communication.

A good example of this type of mission-driven development involves The Meetinghouse, an affordable housing project in Dorchester that is being developed by Arx Urban. Upon completion, the project will deliver 60 percent of its 36 rental units at below-market rates.

In talks with the local community, RODE accepted feedback on the massing and materiality, unit mix and building program. We were able to implement key components that the neighborhood felt would help the building fit within its community without compromising the developer’s ability to finance and build the project. This type of collaborative effort is not possible without first establishing a set of goals that is shared among all the parties. The project aims to begin leasing in 2020.

Across town in Jamaica Plain, The Community Builders and Pine Street Inn unveiled a proposal for the largest complex of permanent supportive housing in Boston. The project aims to bring more than 200 units at 100 percent affordability, including a 140-unit supportive housing component, and located in a diverse neighborhood of Boston. With many of the initial hurdles of affordability and fears of displacement removed from the conversation, the project team can focus  on productive avenues to make this ambitious project fit within the operations of an existing community.

These types of projects are dependent on public-revenue funding sources, which impart rigorous standards on projects that place high demands on the design team. These characteristics also happen to align with the values of the neighborhoods where the projects are located.

The standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) ensure that projects are accessible to the broadest possible populations. Design review processes ensure that public input and quality standards are met.

All of these trends, when taken collectively, suggest that just because the sellable cost per square foot is lower, the design effort is not less. Architects and developers must be ready to apply the same rigorous design process no matter the project type.

The benefits to the residents, and solid relationships for future endeavors, lead to healthier, stronger communities. And at the end of the day, that’s a win for all.

— By Eric J. Robinson, principal and co-founder, RODE Architects. This article first appeared in the November-December issue of Northeast Real Estate Business magazine. 

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