As follow up to a set of questions to the Ward 5 Ward Councilor candidates, Village 14 posed two additional questions: one about housing, the other about city streets and sidewalks. Bill Humphrey and Kathy Winters responded. Rena Getz did not.
All three of you expressed, at the [League of Women Voters] forum, that Newton needs to add some housing to help with the regional housing crisis. The 15-member Metro Boston Mayors Coalition set a target of 185,000 new homes in the region by 2030. Newton’s pro rata share would be 11,000. How many new housing units do you think Newton should build by 2030? Feel free to elaborate beyond a number or range. How should the city get to that number? With what mix of housing? Where?
I think it’s fair that Newton should be trying to get 11,000 more housing units built by 2030, but given how slowly things have been progressing on proposed development projects and zoning reform, I have my doubts that this is either going to happen or be possible to achieve. If it were to be achieved, however, it would require a very diverse mix of housing and not just the large development projects that are occupying most of the public attention right now. The Planning Department noted in a February 2019 hearing on zoning reform that our current zoning code actually allows the by-right construction of 2,000 more housing units across the city’s lots because property owners have not built out fully to the allowable limits. (Which is not to say that would be a good idea automatically, just that it demonstrates a potential for more housing dispersed evenly across the city, as opposed to major projects alone.)
However, what we have generally been seeing instead of lot owners adding small single or duplex units is a trend toward so-called “monster” single-family homes that fully use up the lot limits but don’t add any additional housing. Any zoning reform needs to push us away from very large single-family homes and toward much more modest units. That would likely allow us to add several thousand more homes across Newton relatively unobtrusively – although many residents rightly point to the probability that this would add significant traffic unless we also concentrate the new units as much as possible toward village centers and existing public transit and add various traffic mitigation policies. We also need to figure out how to manage additions to the housing stock in a way that does not just result in a different kind of tree clear-cutting and green-space erasure that we already see from the monster home development approach we have now.
Finally, perhaps the least high-impact way of adding units would be to continue revisiting the accessory apartments ordinance to see if we can get more small units established, many of which would be used by older relatives and some of which would likely be used by younger renters who could not otherwise afford to return home to Newton. Newton used to have a greater population with fewer homes because multi-generational families were historically more common (and in my family that has remained true ever since my great-grandfather moved to Chestnut Street in 1907 with his wife, his mother-in-law, and his many daughters). There is some data from the United States and Europe suggesting that a return to 2- or 3-generation households is a rising trendline, and accessory apartments are likely to help us meet our regional housing obligations in light of this and other ongoing trends.
I don’t have a number for how many units Newton should build by 2030, but if we continue to have robust economic growth over the next 10 years, we will need quite a bit in order to help solve the region’s housing and affordability shortage. Large mixed-use developments are going to happen where large parcels are available (currently there are 1771 units under consideration at Northland, Riverside, the Barn and Riverdale), but large developments are not the ideal route for creating complete neighborhoods. We also need a revised context-based zoning code that allows for our villages to “thicken up” incrementally over time with a varied mix of housing options, especially compact sustainable housing near transit. I am also supportive of adopting a housing production plan to give Newton more control over the 40B comprehensive permit process (which results in a higher percentage of affordable units than the special permit process).
No matter how new development occurs, we will need to strengthen our infrastructure (i.e., transit, schools, and pedestrian facilities).