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Boston May Need Much More Housing Than Reported. What it Means

David Bates / May 31, 2017-10:27 am

In October 2014, Mayor Walsh’s administration issued a report which advocated the production of 53,000 housing units in Boston by the year 2030.

According to the 132-page report, Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030, the new housing was necessary to keep pace with the area’s population growth, help stabilize area home prices, and to keep low and middle classes in the city.

It might be time to consider whether the city needs far more housing than the report estimated.

From 2010 to 2030, the Walsh administration report projected the city’s population to expand from 617,594 to 709,000, a total of 91,406 people.

But in November 2016, the Boston Planning and Development Agency’s Research Division published a report predicting Boston’s 2030 population would be 723,500, exactly 14,500 more residents than the Walsh administration had projected.

Using the average household size of the Walsh administration’s report (91,406 more people/53,000 more homes =1.72), the additional 14,500 future residents translates to another 8,430 homes that would need to be produced by 2030 to satisfy the mayor’s goals. So, at the very minimum, shouldn’t the Boston housing goal be modified from 53,000 to 61,430 (53,000 + 8,430)?

The BPDA’s report also referenced a University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute study which projected Boston would have 752,000 inhabitants in 2030. If correct, then Boston might need to produce not 53,000, not 61,430, but 78,146 homes by 2030.

Incredible, but it gets worse.

A census report published on May 19, 2016 estimated that by mid-2015 Boston’s population was 667,137. In other words, of all the population growth Boston expected over a 20-year period, 53% had been achieved in just the first five years. If growth continued at the same pace, the Walsh administration’s 2030 population projection would be exceeded by the end of 2020.

The census estimate also surpassed the 2015 population estimate of the UMDI report, which projected Boston’s population to be only 651,624 in 2015. Simply put, the city was growing about 45% faster than its most aggressive 2030 population estimate.

Barry Bluestone, the Northeastern professor who is an expert on Boston housing, explained why the city’s projected population growth didn’t match its actual population growth. At a panel discussion concerning the state of microunits in Boston, Bluestone told the audience, “When we first made these predictions, we did not have as strong an economy as we do now.” Bluestone thought that if the economy remained strong, 53,000 units would be an underestimate.

Of course, projecting future population is not a science. Recently, there have been reports of area layoffs, rising interest rates, political uncertainty, and other local and world events that could significantly impact the arc of Boston’s population growth.

At the same time, can there be any doubt that there is more reason and desire to live in Boston than ever before? Isn’t it plain to see that there are powerful and diverse social and economic forces attracting demographics both near and far to Boston?

Currently, the area’s lack of supply and ever increasing demand is undoubtedly confirmed in the large amount of insanely over-ask offers the local real estate market sees, the massive bets developers are making on huge parcels, and the numerous buildings selling out long before construction is complete.

Is there any chance that housing supply will catch up with demand in the near future?, asked the The Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2016. “Most of the numbers are not encouraging,” the report somberly notes.

And while the city’s 2016 Third Quarter Report summary and scorecard reveals that housing production is running significantly ahead of the pace necessary to hit the 2030 goal, it’s time to consider what Boston will be like in 2030 if the 53,000 unit housing production estimate is just way too low.

If the housing production number has been underestimated, then the impact may be the exact opposite of what the Mayor intended: ever increasing real estate prices through 2030, while low and middle classes leave the city in much bigger numbers than expected.

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