Few topics spur more controversy in Newton than increasing the housing stock. Most residents, it seems, support development of commercial properties, especially in abandoned industrial sites like the empty lots behind Needham Street. The prospect of raising tax revenues without increasing the city’s population makes sense. But if the project involves housing, then the battle lines are drawn.
On one side are the high-density advocates. At the heart of this approach is the belief that the post-war movement from cities to suburbs was a demographic and environmental mistake. It seems indisputable that if more people lived in apartment complexes near cities, and fewer in commuter suburbs with single-family dwellings, the stress on the environment and on infrastructure would be lessened. It is too late now, though, to undo suburbanization. We might, however, bring the process to a halt, and none can deny the existence of a housing shortage in Greater Boston.
Some residents will support any new housing simply because they believe that our population is aging and we need a younger demographic. Those who support mixed-income housing argue that Newton, like other suburban communities, has a moral obligation to create homes for lower and middle class families. Other residents, no doubt, oppose the very idea of creating high density housing here. They say that they love Newton for its less crowded, greener spaces, and they’d hate to see it become a traffic-choked extension of Brookline and Boston.
The rest of us lie somewhere in the middle of this dynamic debate. We’d like to see more lower and middle-income housing in Newton but are suspicious of the current approach to creating it: large housing developments with 15-20% of the units supposedly set aside for those of limited means. The problem is many-fold. First, the developers of these projects often demand that the city waive certain environmental and civic regulations or else, they argue, the projects will not be viable. Secondly, the vast majority of the units will be at market price, so expensive that only the affluent can afford to move to Newton…just like the McMansions replacing modest Capes and ranch houses around town. According to the 40b calculus, the rent for the set-asides comes to approximately $27,500 a year, or $2,300 a month. How many families of modest means can afford to pay that much?
Finally, if the city were to expand its population by ten thousand people, or up to 100,000 residents, then we would witness an influx of automobiles. In theory, better mass transit, including improvements to the T and the commuter rail, might encourage residents to rely less on their cars. Better public transit within the city would also help, as would safer bicycle routes. But these improvements, all of which I support, seem not to be in the cards in the short run if at all. In the meantime, as councilor Baker has pointed out, Newton’s residents will continue to rely on their automobiles, and as the population increases, the roads will grow more congested.
To create housing for lower income families, shouldn’t the public sector be involved? It once was, of course, but government now steers clear. As the late Marc Slotnick, a tireless Newton advocate for affordable housing, explained to me a few years ago, few municipalities want to be involved in constructing affordable housing anymore. We have to rely, he argued, on the private sector, for better or worse. Unfortunately, private developers, like all businesses, focus first and foremost on generating profit. Hence, even the supposedly affordable units, few in number, are beyond the reach of the very population for whom they are intended. In the end, the more housing we construct, be it McMansions or developments, the higher the median income in Newton will become, further increasing the rents for those set-aside units. So it goes.
As you have surmised, there are no good guys and bad guys in this debate, only a difficult set of challenges to overcome if the city truly wants to maintain, let alone increase, its (less and less) diverse housing stock. I wish I knew a solution that would satisfy both the preservationists and the high-density folks, both those seeking greater tax revenues and those desiring a more economically diverse community. Any ideas out there?