One of Boston’s most prevalent housing types could become a solution to the decline in multifamily development if city officials make it easier to gain approvals for triple-deckers.

Legalize triple-deckers by-right in all neighborhoods? Allow taller buildings as bonuses for affordability? Eliminate on-site parking for all housing projects? 

Boston officials and housing advocates are taking a look at a variety of unorthodox ways to accelerate multifamily and affordable housing production, as the city’s once-robust pipeline slows to a trickle. 

“We have a use problem in the city right now, where as a councilor nobody wants to propose housing to me at all,” District 8 Councilor Kenzie Bok said. “They all want to propose labs.” 

After eliminating on-site parking minimums for all-affordable projects last year, the council is looking for more ways to move the needle on housing production. 

Multifamily project approvals have plummeted in Boston in 2022, as the pipeline has slowed amid inflation-driven project costs increases, and developers’ opt for higher-income-generating commercial lab buildings. 

In 2021, the BPDA approved 6,643 housing units, including a 35 percent income-restricted component totaling 2,343 units. Through the first 10 months of 2022, however, the agency has approved only 2,434 multifamily housing units, 861 of which are income-restricted. 

And once approved by the BPDA, many projects need to clear additional hurdles in variances by the Zoning Board of Appeal, a panel that Mayor Michelle Wu is seeking to reform by nominating a new slate of members. 

Other Cities Offer Options 

Housing activists blame factors ranging from market forces to litigiousness for the bottleneck, and are looking to neighboring cities such as Cambridge and Somerville for potential solutions. 

Somerville eliminated minimum parking requirements for most of the city in 2019, and the Cambridge City Council voted to drop on-site parking requirements for all new developments in October. 

One option in Boston is an increase in the allowable height and density for housing projects, eliminating the need for ZBA-issued variances, said Devin Quirk, the BPDA’s deputy chief for development and transformation, at a council hearing Nov. 10. 

In an interview, former Boston city councilor-turned-housing advocate Josh Zakim said expanding the ranks of projects approved as-of-right would go a long way toward increasing multifamily housing starts. 

“One simple thing would be triple-deckers allowed as-of-right across the city of Boston,” said Zakim, executive director of Housing Forward Massachusetts. “I’ve heard from both builders and residents that they don’t want to have to argue about variances on every project.” 

Smaller developers currently are reluctant to build triple-deckers because of consultants’ costs and approval processes that can take more than a year, Zakim said. 

A Fast-Track for Affordable Projects 

In September, Mayor Michelle Wu acknowledged City Hall departments’ role in providing more predictable and timely reviews of housing proposals. An executive order will give affordable housing projects a fast-track review timeline by the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The order is designed to cut the average review period to 24 weeks. 

A committee appointed by Wu is also studying a formal increase to the city’s inclusionary development policy, which requires a 13 percent minimum affordable housing component in multifamily developments with 10 or more units. 

But such increases can be counterproductive, argued Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, citing a slowdown in multifamily production in Cambridge since its own mandatory affordable housing percentage was increased to 20 percent in 2017. 

Steve Adams

A more effective strategy in Cambridge, Kanson-Benanav said, has been the citywide zoning overlay passed in 2020, which allows projects with 100 percent income-restricted units to be approved by-right. 

“As critical as the IDP is in Boston, we see in Cambridge that a citywide affordable overlay seems to be more effective,” Kanson-Benanav said. 

As-of-right zoning delivers benefits beyond fast and predictable approvals, said Noah Sawyer, director of real estate for Cambridge-based nonprofit Just-a-Start. 

It also allows affordable housing developers to expand their list of potential acquisition sites in a high-cost real estate market. 

“What the overlay has done in Cambridge is removed that calculus about having to worry too much about who might be ready to sue,” Sawyer said. “It certainly has made it easier for us to look at parcels. We are not competitive on everything, but it brings some fairness to the process and makes things faster and less expensive.” 

As Pipeline Slows, Boston Looks for Housing Stimulants

by Steve Adams time to read: 3 min