With all the talk about building new subsidized housing at great cost to taxpayers, what a shame it is that Boston along with other cities and towns fail to work with private rental housing owners to build lower-rent housing without subsidies if the city would let them. Under Mayor Walsh’s recently proposed plan to create 53,000 units of “affordable” (subsidized) housing somewhere in the neighborhoods of Boston by 2030, the city’s subsidized housing, already top in the nation, would double. Almost every device possible to fund this huge increase is used – ultimately placing much of the burden on the city’s property tax payers. But what the Mayor’s plan totally ignores is private rental property owners, especially small owners of older wood-frame housing, who can create lower-rent units with no government help.
I refer to so-called accessory or “in-law” apartments built in basements, attics, and back¬yards, and to subdivided larger apartments. This type of lower-rent housing would be plentiful in Boston if it were not prohibited by zoning rules and obstructed by difficult-to-achieve zoning variances. Accessory units are naturally lower in rents – without subsidies – for three reasons: (1) otherwise costly infrastructure is already in place – the land, the floors, walls, and ceilings, and much of the plumbing, electrical, water, and sewer requirements, (2) the units are small in size, and basements and attics are considered less desirable, and (3) owners often contribute their own labor at little cost.
Creating affordable units
The city’s prolific supply of larger apartments is another source to tap. They were originally built for large extended families. Today’s smaller households often mean that one or two or three individuals live in these larger apartments with more-than-ample space. Subdividing them would create two smaller units in place of one large unit.
Again, the infrastructure is already there, and smaller size contributes to lower rent. All these units would have minimal impact on neighborhoods: less gentrification, fewer cars, more pedestrians, nothing visible to disturb historic character – and they would improve the city’s tax base rather than reducing it, as the Mayor’s plan does.
If zoning rules were changed, many owners would spring into action to build them. Other owners would legalize the many accessory units that already exist in Boston, but are illegal, sometimes with grave safety violations, such as lack of two means of egress. With the new rental inspection ordinance, these illegal units will be discovered and shut down, only to diminish the city’s housing stock by about 10,000 units and push rents up.
No doubt opposition will arise, but so will opposition to the Mayor’s plan once Bostonians realize its high cost and negative impacts on taxpayers and neighborhoods. The city cannot afford to ignore private owners in its search for affordable housing.