Panel Discusses Boston’s Third Housing Revolution and Its Possible Solution

David Bates / April 19, 2017-11:51 am

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Boston is in the midst of its third housing revolution.

So says Barry Bluestone, a noted expert on the city’s housing market.

The Northeastern professor was setting the table at #CBtalks, a recent panel discussion organized by Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage and held before a diverse group of realtors, design professionals, and others at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston’s South End.

According to Bluestone, the first Boston housing revolution occurred between 1870 and 1920, when significant immigration grew Boston’s population from 250,000 to 750,000. That revolution spawned the triple-decker.

The second Boston housing revolution occurred in the 1950s, when the GI Bill enabled WWII veterans to experience the American Dream. The housing solution for that revolution was the suburban tract house.

Boston’s third housing revolution, however, is provoked by empty-nesters and those between 20-34 years old, both of whom have small household sizes and long to live in the city. Panelists explored micro-units as a possible solution for this housing revolution.  This form of housing typically has around 350 square feet of living space; some versions even have shared amenity spaces.

“We don’t have enough housing for these young people. And we don’t have enough new kinds of housing for people like myself with the kind of amenities that I desperately need: primarily an elevator,” said Bluestone, who is 72.

Bluestone thought micro-units would serve both demographics well.

According to previously released reports, to satisfy the projected population growth, Boston needs tens of thousands of new housing units to be built between now and 2030.

Scott Bailey, the executive director of North America for Mass Challenge, shared with the audience how Boston’s current housing shortage has impacted his organization. Billed as “the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet,” Mass Challenge is a place where 32 years-old is the average age. Bailey explains while entrepreneurs come to Boston to participate at Mass Challenge and find talent, customers, and venture capital, one thing they can’t find is a place to live. “As of June, we’ll have 100 people who don’t have housing this summer,” said Bailey, who has directed the non-profit to analyze pre-fab housing, air streams, microlofts, and an improvised form of AirBnB as possible remedies for the scarcity.

Deb Blair, the president of Link Listing Information Network, informed the audience and fellow panelists that there is an unprecedented demand for urban living. The smallest condos in the city’s core neighborhoods are fetching, on average, $974 per square foot.

Jenny and Anda French, partners at French 2D, an innovative Boston architectural firm, discussed two micro-unit projects the firm has been helping to develop. One, at 1047 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston’s only all micro-unit building, was only able to satisfy archaic Boston zoning requirements by classifying the 180-unit building as a rooming house.

Anyone who wants to get a feel of what it is like to live in micro-units can visit the uhü, a 385 square foot model of an urban housing unit which is currently touring Boston.