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Housing Strategy Profile: Boston

Locality: Boston, Massachusetts
City Population: 600,000 (2019)
Metro Population: 4.7 million (2019) 

Plan Title: Housing a Changing City:
Boston 2030

Date of Plan: 2014
Date of Case Study: January 2020

Substantive Highlights

Boston’s “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030” Plan addresses a fundamental issue: the City’s population is growing faster than its housing stock, leading to an affordability crisis. To address this problem, Boston’s Plan takes a three-pronged approach: producing new housing, preserving existing affordable housing, and protecting households the most at risk of eviction or displacement. In particular the strategy addresses the needs of elderly Bostonians, communities of color, and students.

The need for more housing, however, extends beyond Boston’s borders. Therefore, the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition Regional Housing Task Force is working to establish regional targets for housing production as well as promote policy changes to make housing more abundant and affordable in Boston as well as the City’s surrounding areas.

Specifically, Boston will:

  • Implement zoning relief, tax incentives, increased availability of surplus land, a streamlined permitting process, and amendments to existing inclusionary development policies to increase the production of middle-income housing.
  • Increase funding at the municipal, state, and federal level, as well as increased use of city-owned land and buildings, to expand the availability of affordable housing for Boston’s seniors.
  • Mobilize public-private partnerships to create plans and timetables for the provision of adequate student housing, and implement more frequent off-campus student housing inspections to ensure students are living in safe conditions.
  • Expand downpayment assistance programs, create new acquisition/conversion programs, explore the use of community land trusts, and expand foreclosure prevention programs to increase housing stock and encourage homeownership.
  • Implement automatic linkage adjustments, review existing inclusionary development policies, maintain funding levels from existing programs (i.e. CDBG, HOME, and LIHTC), and secure a line item in the City budget to expand affordable housing resources.

Process

Soon after Mayor Walsh’s election in 2014, Sheila Dillon, Chief of Housing and Director of Neighborhood Development, assembled a Housing Task Force to draft a comprehensive Housing Plan for the City of Boston. As a public servant appointed by Walsh’s predecessor, Dillon was already well-connected and well-positioned to oversee the creation of a new Housing Plan. Members of the Task Force included representatives from housing advocacy organizations, non-profit and for-profit development companies, building trade representatives, demographers, academics, and staff from local, state, and federal housing agencies. Though the Task Force did not open its meetings to the public, members represented a wide range of demographics and stakeholder groups.

Dillon stewarded the Task Force through a series of meetings to discuss different aspects of a potential Housing Plan. Sub-committee groups focused on questions, including which incomes to serve, where to build, which production programs to use, and how to best leverage and protect public housing. Each meeting began with a review of data provided by the City Housing Commission, which ensured that conversations were rooted in fact rather than feeling. Throughout the process, Dillon provided clear agendas that kept dialogue moving forward at a productive pace.

Because the City government in Boston does not control most of the funding sources for affordable housing production, conversations were centered very tightly around what Boston is able to control: the targeting and approval of new housing. The benefit of these focused conversations was a final Plan that made the housing development process more transparent and predictable.

Though Mayor Walsh was not heavily involved in the day-to-day meetings, he lent his name to the cause, and Dillon’s office drafted the final report. While there was broad consensus on the focus areas for the Task Force, two notable additions based on stakeholder input were the provision of housing for students and the elderly.

Metrics, Targets, and Implementation

Before Boston’s 2030 Housing Plan, the City had no overarching housing strategy. Now, the process of allocating resources to different demographics and communities is more transparent; Boston’s housing leaders use the Plan to guide decision-making.

Boston reports its progress against its Housing Plan on a quarterly basis, showing progress in percentage terms compared to where it should be at any given point in time.

Implementation Status

Since putting forward its 2014 Plan, “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030,” Boston has outperformed its Plan in some areas and has underperformed in others.

The City has created 131% of the new housing units it had expected to create by the end of Q1 2019. It has also produced 175% of the income-restricted, middle-income housing it targeted and has retained 102% of its targeted income-restricted housing units. Finally, Boston has exceeded its goal to help Bostonians become home buyers by 17%. In contrast, the City has only created 86% and 89%, respectively, of the low-income and extremely low-income housing it targeted. Boston has also only created 62% of its planned low-income housing units for the elderly. Finally, the City has converted only 80% of its targeted market-rate units to income-restricted units and has renovated only 65% of Boston Housing Authority units compared to its target.

Boston’s Q1 2019 report goes into greater detail about its progress against the 2030 Plan.

Coverage of Four Policy Pillars

Not Covered Moderate FocusA pillar is a Moderate Focus of a housing strategy when the strategy addresses it, but in a minor or secondary way, such as by including only one policy of modest projected impact from the pillar. Substantial FocusA pillar is a Substantial Focus of a housing strategy when the strategy includes policies falling within multiple functional subcategories of that pillar or at least one policy projected to have a large impact.
Create and preserve dedicated affordable housing units
Promote affordability by reducing barriers to new supply
Help households access private-market homes
Protect against displacement and poor housing conditions

Participating Agencies

No Role Supporting Role Leading Role
Office of the Mayor
Office of the City/County Manager
Housing Department
Planning Department
Development Agency
Permitting/Inspections Department
Finance/Tax Department
Public Housing Authority
City/County Council

Policy Tools

Boston’s 2030 Housing Plan identifies the following major policy tools to achieve its targets:

  • City-funded, or mandated, housing production
  • Inclusionary development policies
  • Rental development financing and subsidies
  • Tax relief
  • Long-term affordability protections
  • Zoning relief
  • Improved permitting process
  • Housing authority tools
  • Provision of city- and state-owned surplus land
  • Community land trusts
  • Foreclosure prevention and assistance programs
  • Downpayment assistance

Income Groups Targeted

Little/No Focus Moderate Focus Substantial Focus
0-30% AMI
30-60% AMI
60-80% AMI
80-120% AMI
Market Rate

Principal Housing Policy Objectives

  ✓    Increasing Rental Affordability   ✓    Increasing Homeownership
  ✓    Improving Energy-Efficiency of Housing Stock   ✓    Increasing Housing Supply
  ✓    Preventing Displacement    

Which Linkages Are Addressed

  ✓    Health   ✓    Environment / Energy
  ✓    Sustainability  

Which Local Funding Sources Are Proposed?

  ✓    Linkage Fees
  ✓    Dedicated Revenue Source
(CDBGs, HOME funding, line-item in the municipal budget)
  ✓    Community Preservation Act: surcharge on property taxes to be matched with municipal funds

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