The Problem with Housing

This article is part of a feature series for the Urban Land Institute of New England and co-authored by Susan Connelly, Housing Opportunities Unlimited Chief Operating Officer, and Scott Pollack, Opportunity Communities, LLC President of the Board of Managers, as ULI members.

Everyone agrees we have a housing problem. There isn’t enough, it costs too much, and limited supply is hurting the recruiting and retention of the talent that drives our economy.  Housing problems impact almost every community in the Commonwealth, every household type, and every socio-economic class.

It is good we agree there is a housing crisis, but that is not sufficient to know what to do next.  This is the first in a series of columns that delves into the details of the complex, often conflicting underlying issues to our housing issues and shares possible solutions.  We encourage anyone who is concerned about housing, from governments to employers, advocates to developers, homeowners to schools, to participate.

We live in a complicated world that evolves rapidly and in unexpected ways. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the issues impacting housing are also complex and wide-ranging.  There are supply and demand issues.  There are overlapping policies and regulations.  There are revenue and cost issues.  There is the need for housing to work not only for those who live in it now, but also the ever-changing generations that follow.

Housing, when it functions well, provides an ecosystem of the right dwelling types, at the right place and cost.  It needs to work for builders, owners and tenants as they move though all stages of life.  We need housing for families, but also for young and older single people, couples just starting their lives and empty nesters.  As the Commonwealth’s residents evolve, the ecosystem has to adapt along with it.  If not, the solutions implemented today will fail tomorrow’s Bay Staters as badly as the existing system is failing us today.

Most of the state’s housing stock was built before 1970.  Who we are, what we do for a living, and the way we live are so very different than what they were back then.  The population is larger, more diverse and older.  We have more households of fewer people, a trend that started in 1940 with no end in sight.

In the last 50 years, our population grew by almost a third, while household size (the number of people living in a single housing unit) decreased by almost 30%.   There are both cities and towns in Massachusetts where people per household is half of what it was in 1970.  At the same time, the number of people living alone almost doubled to 29%.

Less people per household means that communities have to add more housing just to keep the same number of residents. Many cities and towns have smaller populations now than they did a half a century ago because they haven’t been able to do that.   ULI  and the Metropolitan Area Planning CouncilThe Boston Foundation and state agencies such as Massachusetts Housing Partnership, have written extensively about changing demographics, housing supply and demand.  For example, this MAPC report explores why many family housing units in the Commonwealth are occupied by single people and couples, so they can age in place in the communities they love because it is cost prohibitive to move, or there are not options to stay in  their home towns.

Many overlapping factors created these mismatches between who we are now, what we need, and the housing supply available to us.  Changing codes, the difficulty of rezoning underutilized land, worries about tax revenues when changing from commercial to residential use and physical/utility constraints are all implicated in the lack of new housing.  In addition, zoning changes in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s restricted and even eliminated many uses that were considered “undesirable”.  This exclusionary zoning approaches had consequences, both intended and unintended.  Densities were lowered, lot sizes and setbacks increased, making housing more expensive. Workforce housing types, like the good old triple-decker, were legislated out of existence.  Cities like Somerville have only recently allowed them again by-right. Suburban, family housing types were entrenched in law even as families shrunk, and people rediscovered a preference for walkable neighborhoods.

Implemented to protect perceived community character, zoning changes made it near to impossible to reproduce many most beloved places.  Very few zoning ordinances allow, by-right, the rebuilding of pre-zoning, historic town centers with their small lots and streets, mix of housing and commercial, and lack of parking.  Communities allow massive single-family homes but not the same allowable square footage for duplexes or triplexes.  They also imply that the physical look of a place is more important than the people who live there.

At the same time, a wide range of other regulations related to important issues, from life-safety to environmental protection and accessibility, have been added.  These are important issues but were too often considered in a vacuum without sufficient concern for their impacts on the production and cost of housing.  They created multiple, parallel authorities yet provided little clarity on how to prioritize between often contradictory regulations and uncoordinated processes.  Often the positive impact of one regulation is limited by the implementation of another.  All too often, parallel authorities are misused to block important policies, like providing housing to all.

Future policies, at both state and community levels, must find ways to align these important goals into a coherent, functional whole.  Even though it is made more difficult by our form of town-meeting government, together we must find a way to support housing as an ecosystem while considering hard questions, like:

  • What does a housing ecosystem that can evolve with changing demographics look like?
  • How do we prioritize competing issues within a coherent housing policy?
  • How do we algin policies with the wide array of community characters in the Commonwealth?
  • How do we support the vast majority of towns in the State that are small and without enough technical assistance to determine the best way for their town to increase housing?
  • How do we identify and use underutilized land and assets?
  • How do we lower costs across the housing spectrum?

This is an introduction to a series of articles to encourage ULI member engagement, sharing of experiences and ideas.  Article topics will delve further into changes in demographics, community character, the specifics and impacts of uncoordinated and/or no longer relevant regulations, restoring workforce housing types and lowering the cost of housing.  We look forward to the discussion.

Scott Pollack is founder of SRPlanning ( and serves as Co-Chair of ULI Boston/New England’s Housing Roundtable. Susan Connelly is Chief Operating Officer of Housing Opportunities Unlimited. Please send any reactions, comments, or ideas to Scott at