Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab — working to make Boston affordable for ALL residents

To serve the needs of Boston’s current and future residents, by pioneering innovative housing models and systems, as well as accelerating the pace of innovation in the housing sector.

In a city with a world recognized Innovation District, a blossoming startup scene, and an assortment of “incubators and labs,” a title like Housing Innovation Lab can quickly get lost in the crowd. But, over the course of the past year, the City of Boston’s Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab has been plugging along with a number of unique, small-scale experiments, specifically addressing Boston’s middle income housing gap. It is this work and how they go about it that sets the Mayor’s iLab apart.


Housing A Changing City: Boston 2030 (pg. 23)

In 2014, with the release of Housing A Changing City: Boston 2030, Boston’s Mayor, Martin J. Walsh, called for the creation of a Housing Innovation Lab. The intention of the Lab was clear: To serve the needs of Boston’s current and future residents, by pioneering innovative housing models and systems, as well as accelerating the pace of innovation in the housing sector. Simply, Mayor Walsh recognized a need for exploration and acceleration in the housing field to help the city address its growing need.

With start up funding from a Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team grant, the Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) responded to Mayor Walsh’s call. The two offices partnered to establish the Housing Innovation Lab (iLab). The iLab now sits with one foot in MONUM and the other in DND. By connecting these departments, the iLab can rely on the strengths of both and more effectively identify and execute on creative solutions to address the city’s middle income housing gap.


Housing iLab Pop-up Engagement in Mattapan

Prioritize people — put people at the center of our work

Putting people at the center of the work is essential to identify ideas with potential for impact. Whether it is community meetings, charrettes, pop-up engagement efforts, or a number of other approaches, the iLab consistently tries to build community perspective into the team’s prototypes. This means Boston’s residents are not just part of the feedback loop, but at many times, co-creators. For the iLab, Bostonians are the priority — both to serve and to serve with. Solving Boston’s middle income housing gap requires understanding the complexity of Boston’s community members and their associated wants and needs. As such, prioritizing people is central to the success of the iLab.

Partners from the Boston Society of Architects, the Department of Neighborhood Development and the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association team up the Housing iLab on the Housing Innovation Competition

Engage collaborators — engage both internal and external partners to move the work forward

Taking on a systemic issue like the gap in middle income housing requires collaboration amongst all players. The iLab spent much of this first year developing strong partnerships and relationships. These relationships extend cross-departmentally within City Hall, across Boston, and around the country. Current partners of the iLab include, the Boston Planning and Development Agency, Inspectional Services Department, the Boston Society of Architects, the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, Harvard, Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University, and many, many more. Boston’s Housing challenges cannot be solved in silos. Instead, an effort must be made to connect individuals and ideas. The iLab does just that. By engaging collaborators, both inside and outside of City Hall, the iLab helps move Boston closer to solutions for its housing challenges.

Experiment early and often — take a prototype driven approach to policy making

Experimentation is an important element to solving Boston’s middle income housing challenge. As such, it is a critical piece to the iLab’s process. This is because utilizing experiments, or prototypes, allows the iLab to test the feasibility, favorability, and potential impact of an idea without over committing city resources. This process provides opportunity to learn from the success and failure of small-scale experiments, iterate, and create improved policy, models, or systems as a result. By taking a prototype driven approach to policy making, the iLab can identify good ideas, more rapidly test them, evaluate them, and provide more informed proposals for action. As the name lab implies, experimenting is part of how the iLab intends to address Boston’s housing needs.


Idea hub — critique, guide, and connect new ideas as they come to the lab

The iLab functions as a lightning rod for great housing ideas. This is not because the iLab itself comes up with all the new and fantastic ideas. Instead it attracts ideas, finds the right partners and executes to bring the best ones to life.

The iLab does this by operating with a “culture of yes” and by connecting, seemingly, unaffiliated parties. This means the iLab will say yes to meeting any Bostonian with an idea for how to address Boston’s housing challenges. The team works to connect those ideas with organizations most capable of taking them on. Sometimes the idea fits within the iLab’s work; sometimes another city department is more appropriate; and sometimes it is a totally different organization operating outside of city hall. Believing that anyone can have a great idea and understanding that execution occurs quicker when silos are broken down are key factors in the iLab’s process.

To create space for the influx of new ideas, the iLab has 3 hours set aside each week, on Thursday afternoons, to meet with local entrepreneurs, non-profits, agencies, and community members. The iLab hears all ideas, offers critical feedback, and if the idea is ready, identifies the best party internally or externally to take the idea and run with it. The Housing Innovation Competition is an example of an initiative, which started from an idea brought to the Lab and was brought to life through a collaborative effort of internal and external partners.

Project pipeline — continuous pipeline of projects at different phases of exploration, experimentation or evaluation

Here are some examples of projects the iLab has worked on this past year:

Compact Living


Description: Compact units, smaller than those typically developed in Boston, may provide an option for households who are interested in foregoing extra living space for more affordability.

People Centered: To understand if residents are interested in this type of housing we toured a 385 square foot Urban Housing Unit across Boston neighborhoods getting feedback from nearly 3,000 residents.

Experimental: The Housing Innovation Competition is a City of Boston pilot initiative on five City-owned vacant land parcels in the Garrison Trotter neighborhood. The competition asks development teams to propose innovative compact living designs, that demonstrate the feasibility of creating smaller family units that are affordable. Lessons learned from this initiative will be used to inform policy.

Collaborative: Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association, Boston Society of Architects, What’s In, Live Light

Density Bonus


Description: As affordable housing funding diminishes year after year, the city is seeking new ways to build more affordable units. A density bonus provides an incentive for developers by allowing increased height or floor area in exchange for income restrictions on a percentage of the units.

People Centered: The iLab used an interactive lego challenge to demonstrate density bonus principles and engage community members to build their own models.

Experimental: The iLab has worked with the Boston Planning and Development Agency, developers and community members on a density bonus policy for the Strategic Planning Areas of PLAN: JP/Rox and PLAN: Dot Ave. The two areas are distinctly different and the resulting policies reflect this. Lessons learned from the pilots will help determine if a density bonus incentive should be extended to other areas of the city and if so what form it should take.

Collaborative: Boston Planning & Development Agency

Community Land Trusts


Description: Community Land Trusts (CLTs) are a growing model in Boston that allow communities to create and steward permanently affordable housing, affordable commercial spaces, open spaces and farms.

People Centered: For many housing professionals this model is unfamiliar. As a result there are a lack of collaborators for emerging CLTs to partner with. To bridge this gap we have collaborated with the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network to expand the ecosystem of support for CLTs by co-sponsored training events with lending institutions and city staff.

Experimental: We have established a working group that includes city staff and emerging CLTs to brainstorm and generate new ideas for ways the city can support community land trusts. We plan to test one or two ideas that emerge from these working sessions over the next year.

Collaborative: Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network, Tufts Urban Environmental Policy and Planning

First Time Homebuyer Support


Description: For many families in Boston the dream of buying their first home is becoming seemingly out of reach. As housing prices continue to rise and competition for existing properties becomes fierce, there is growing need to support these potential homeowners and help them compete in this challenging market.

People Centered: Collaborating with the Boston Home Center, Mass Housing and Massachusetts Housing Partnership the iLab conducted user research to better understand the home buying journey. We heard repeatedly from homebuyers that the process is overwhelming and they are unsure where to begin. Building off of this research, we developed a homebuyer framework which has been incorporated into the Boston Home Center Homebuyer classes.

Experimental: The iLab is working to develop prototypes for a home buying planner that would further support first time buyers through the complex process.

Collaborative: Boston Home Center, MassHousing, Massachusetts Housing Partnership, Northeastern University

Momentum projects — generate internal and external support and buy in for new initiatives

Periodically, the iLab takes on a project, which may seem unrelated to its base work. These projects serve as opportunities for the Lab to provide support to partners and serve to build stronger and more trusting relationships. Perhaps most importantly, by taking on these projects, the iLab facilitates culture change by spreading our methods across different departments. By taking on these projects, the iLab can build trust in the team’s approach and help others across the city begin to think differently about how to serve Boston’s residents.


There are many reasons why the iLab stands out. Whether it is the iLab’s purpose, it’s means for going about its work, or the prototypes and projects themselves, the iLab is providing Boston with a new approach for addressing the city’s complex housing challenges.

Do you have an idea? We want to hear it!

We are always eager to hear new ideas and we work hard to find ways to foster the great ones. Sign up to chat with us during our office hours held every Thursday afternoon.