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Housing is growing, but affordable housing is not, study finds

The number of building permits issued for multi-unit housing in the Greater Boston area are on the rise, but according to a recent report few are set aside for affordable housing.

Published by the Boston Foundation, the report found out of the estimated 12,900 permits to be issued in the Greater Boston area in 2017, and the City granted around 60 percent of housing permits for buildings of five or more units and more than 41 percent of all of the new housing permits. However, since 2011, only 18 percent of new units in Boston were found to be “affordable,” or suitable for young adults entering the workforce, older generations aging out of the their jobs and middle income families.

The purpose of the annual report, currently in its 15th year, is to address increasingly expensive housing rates in Boston and its surrounding suburban areas, Ted McEnroe, a spokesperson for the foundation, said.

“You are seeing sharp increases in housing price and an increase in the number of individuals, whether they are homeowners or renters, who are spending a high percentage of their earnings on their housing,” McEnroe said. “Price pressure has actually moved outside of the city proper and even in some of the more traditional working class inner suburbs.”

Barry Bluestone, the report author and a Northeastern University public policy professor, said the lack of affordable housing for working families stems from the large number of young students and professionals who live in affordable housing units.

“The first reason why I’m concerned about our graduate students and other younger people is they are taking over much of the housing stock that traditionally has been affordable for working families, making it much more difficult for working families to find affordable housing,” Bluestone said.

To reduce the number of young students and professionals in affordable housing units traditionally occupied by working families, Bluestone said he created a plan in the report to develop “21st Century Villages,” housing complexes with small units and access to common space, retail stores and transportation. This is the first time since the report’s inception he has included such a plan.

“We can come up with better types of housing for graduate students and other young people … and other young professionals by creating … housing that will have a lot of the amenities that I think young people want,” Bluestone said. “Helping them transition to new housing frees up a lot of the older housing so that the working families wouldn’t have such high housing burdens.”

The report also noted the City of Boston’s progressive efforts to address housing needs, Bluestone said.  

“We think that under Mayor Walsh, the City of Boston is making significant progress for meeting its housing needs,” Bluestone said. “They are on track to meet the 53,000 units of housing they projected. They are working aggressively to make it easier for developers to put up the housing we need.”

Bluestone said the Greater Boston area must also pursue reforms for housing development.

“Our argument in the report is that we all need to get all the other communities in Greater Boston … need to step up now and follow Boston’s lead and do the kind of reform and expedited development so that we can get the housing not only in Boston but all through Greater Boston,” Bluestone said.

Several Boston residents expressed varying opinions on the importance of addressing housing development.

Jin Yi Chen, 40, of Brighton, said the report reflects the reality about the lack of affordable housing for his own parents living in Boston.

“To own a house is still difficult, a big issue for many people,” Chen said. “[My parents] worked but they were not as professional as I am, so even though they tried their best to save money, [they] somehow still cannot afford even to pay the first installment.”

Eugenia Moorehead, 37, of Dorchester, said more affordable housing must be created through rent control.

“I believe that there is a lot of housing going on but it’s not enough for affordable housing,” Moorehead said. “Bring back rent control. A long time ago, they put a cap on how much landlords can charge for rents. There is no longer a cap, so the rents are extremely high and normal families cannot afford in-the-city housing.”

Liping Zhu, 59, of Brighton said the City should not focus on housing development because of the volatile nature of the market.

“The demand is temporary,” Zhu said. “When [the] economy [goes] downward, the housing will be extra. Right now, because the economy is very good, many young people … [are attracted] to the city, but if such a factor disappeared, it [doesn’t] need that many houses.”

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