Can we build more housing and transform City buildings at the same time? 3 Lessons.

To help end Boston’s housing shortage and renovate City-owned buildings, we asked: should we put housing on top of city assets (libraries, fire stations, and other city buildings) when we are redeveloping them?

Our Experiment

In Boston, where real estate prices and housing costs rank amongst the highest in the country, buildable vacant lots are scarce. The City of Boston works closely with communities to sell the limited number of vacant parcels it does own in accordance with community needs. In many cases the City sells that land for affordable housing development.

We wanted to know what residents thought about the City developing housing on top of new types of City assets like libraries, fire stations and other City buildings. We also hoped to better understand how building housing on top of City assets might help the City improve those assets while also growing the City’s housing stock.

We released a Request for Information asking this about the concept: should the City combine housing and City assets? If so, where? We called the idea“Housing with Public Assets.”

The Request for Information invited respondents to pick from a list of over 80 City assets and tell us which assets they would like to redevelop or see redeveloped with housing. The list included City offices, libraries, fires stations, community centers, and parking lots located across all Boston neighborhoods. After the responses came in, we hosted a public showcase of the ideas we received and we invited residents to submit their own comments online. As hoped, we learned a lot from the responses, the comments submitted by residents, and our own internal research. We are excited to share with you the three key lessons we’ve learned about Housing with Public Assets in Boston.

What We Have Learned

  1. People want to see this done.

We were amazed by the robust and positive set of responses to the Request for Information. We heard from 24 respondents ( you can see them for yourself here), including from a group of community members who proposed putting affordable housing on top of their neighborhood library and fire station. Even more exciting was that their idea was unanimously supported by the local neighborhood association. Notably, respondents came from a broad set of stakeholders, including Community Development Corporations, Economic Development Corporations, private developers, and supportive housing providers.

Residents also voiced support using the online portal and comment cards. “All of these proposals feel very thought out and plausible,” wrote one. Another said that they would like to see this done “everywhere” and the City should “just get it done!” A showcase attendee wrote that they looked “forward to what is chosen and what gets done! THANK YOU!” An online commentator that “all the proposals looked good and would both increase our housing supply and better community amenities. I especially like projects that are converting parking lots into housing, which is a much better use of the space.

We were glad to hear residents articulating their desire to use Housing with Public Assets to improve existing public assets and provide housing.

While the Housing with Public Assets concept and a few specific RFI responses did receive some criticism (described in the next section), the volume and strength of the positive comments gives us confidence that with the right location, partners and community process, this idea could become a reality in Boston.

2. Public benefits (and the necessary trade-offs) should be clearly defined with communities.

Some residents expressed concerns about House with Public Assets, reminding us that it will be essential to consider all community input when evaluating what types of projects to pursue, and where. Some residents used the online feedback form to tell us that they believed a proposal for housing above a municipal parking lot would ruin an adjacent park and also make parking in the neighborhood a headache.

One resident wrote that they loved “the idea, but not at the cost of destroying a well loved local park.” Another suggested the housing on a parking lot was a bad idea because it currently offers “necessary parking lot for residents, visitors, and neighboring businesses” and the neighborhood is already experiencing a “shortage of parking.”

Their comments illustrate a theme: green space, open space and parking in Boston are all important to residents, and new building development can impact all three negatively if pursued without community input and clearly defined community benefits. Given these concerns, each Housing with Public Assets project must thoughtfully balance the opportunity to add housing on top of public assets with neighborhood need for green space and parking.

The tradeoff between housing affordability and public asset redevelopment became clear after we studied the financial feasibility of some of the proposals. If the City decided to build market rate housing on top of a library, it might be able to help fund the new library building with profits from the market rate housing. This could save the City funds it might then be able to spend on other neighborhood services. However, in a city with rising housing costs, there is always tremendous need for housing for low and middle income residents, and subsidizing a new library might mean building less affordable housing. While the value created by co-location could “both increase our housing supply and better community amenities,” as one resident commented, how much of the resulting housing is made affordable through City subsidy, versus how much to improve the existing City asset, should be thoughtfully evaluated for each project based on community input and neighborhood context.

Across the City, and in every neighborhood, we must work closely with residents to determine what each Housing with Public Assets project looks like. We should think of Housing with Public Assets as a series of projects in a portfolio, each with neighborhood-specific goals and benefits. We believe the trade-offs that they highlighted, and the intended benefit, should be clearly defined with the community in a site-specific way.

Image submitted by Sarah Barnat, Eliza Datta, Loryn Scheffner and Yanel de Angel in response to the Housing with Public Assets Request for Information

Existing Massachusetts laws that govern how cities build municipal buildings does not allow housing or commercial space inside municipal buildings. Housing with Public Assets will only be possible if we can find a legal mechanism that supports coordinated and efficient design, construction and operations while ensuring transparency and fairness. Until a sound legal pathway is found, Housing with Public Assets projects may not create as much public value as our communities deserve.

The opportunity is huge: hundreds of City-owned land and buildings might be transformed into better City assets all while providing desirable and affordable housing opportunities for Boston residents. Not only that, but there is tremendous support for moving this project forward from community members, developers and city officials. We look forward to partnering with Boston residents, our City and State colleagues, and private partners to identify where and how to make Housing with Public Assets happen in Boston.

Image submitted by Z Capital and Silverman Trykowski Associates in response to the Housing with Public Assets Request for Information

New Urban Mechanics

Written by

The Mayor's Office New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

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