A new analysis of Greater Boston’s apartment market shows just how environmentally damaging development policies in the region’s suburbs are – something no natural gas ban can solve. 

Rental listings portal site Apartment List crunched the numbers on where populations and rents were growing in the nation’s metro areas, an indicator of absolute population shifts as well as the intensity of demand. Their conclusion: Not only did Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk and Plymouth counties see significantly greater percentage growth in their populations than Suffolk County – made up of Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop – from 2019 to 2021, they saw bigger jumps in rent between March 2020 and May 2022.  

In Suffolk County, rent is up 5.6 percent over that period, compared to 19.4 percent in suburban areas.  

Leaving aside the horror of those rent increases and the demographics, extreme under-building and financial market dynamics that caused them, two other statistics stand out that should make Bay Staters’ blood run cold. Greater Boston’s suburban counties drive nearly twice as many miles per year on average compared to Suffolk County, resulting in a 38.74 percent bigger carbon footprint per household. 

And Apartment List’s analysis shows that high-carbon lifestyle is exactly where renters are headed. 

Much of the debate in Greater Boston suburbs over how to green the building sector is focused on forcing developers to build all-electric buildings. In some more than a few cases, these well-intentioned requirements are actually development-killers, with more expensive alternatives for some water heaters and HVAC equipment blowing up project budgets at a time when construction costs seem to know no upper limit. 

Unfortunately, this debate also misses one of the biggest levers towns and cities have to reduce the climate impact of new construction: location. By bowing to hecklers’ vetoes and the undeniable temptation for any politician to micromanage a controversial process, many towns have relegated multifamily development to the edges of town where it’s actively harming efforts to stop the planet from becoming literally unlivable.  

They’ve created a system that lets big firms with big projects dominate while ensuring it’s almost impossible to build walkable or bikeable connections to jobs, shops and entertainment and adding to the difficulties a transit system might face trying to provide more service there. 

And if you think a rapid, mass adoption of electric cars will save the day, the supply chain shambles of the last two years ought to give you pause before you put your faith in automakers’ abilities to meet such massive demand. 

Fortunately, not all towns are lost in the wilderness here. Burlington, for example, is concocting a plan to channel new development to its commercial heart. Melrose is trying to encourage builders to turn single-story retail properties near its commuter rail stations into taller, mixes of housing and commercial space.  

And with the new MBTA Communities zoning reforms in process, local leaders will have an excellent tool to get back on the right track. 


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MBTA Communities Zoning Can Green Boston’s Suburbs

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min