We Are Not Who We Used To Be

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.

Our policies are designed for who we used to be rather than who we are and who we are becoming.  Accepting who we really are, how we live and work, and the trends shaping the Commonwealth’s future is a prerequisite to sustaining our economy.

Like it or not, we live in a time of rapid, persistent, and unpredictable change.  But change is inescapable and efforts to stop it are doomed to failure.  Fifty years ago, many communities looked to the past to keep evolution at bay by creating zoning policies to “protect” what they thought their towns were and should always be.

It didn’t work and it created the housing mess we find ourselves in today.

We are, now more than ever, a diverse population of smaller households while land-use policies continue to assume every household can and will house a traditional family. We are far more likely to work in the knowledge economy than in agriculture or manufacturing, but we continue to strictly separate residential and commercial uses without a special permit. We outlawed many traditional workforce housing types, like two-families and triple-deckers, yet we wonder why all the new housing being built is “luxury”.

Our policies are designed for who we used to be rather than who we are and who we are becoming.  Accepting who we really are, how we live and work, and the trends shaping the Commonwealth’s future is a prerequisite to sustaining our economy.

Who are we? According to the Wall Street Journal, “more Americans are turning 65 this year than any prior time in history” and, according to the 2020 census, the fastest growing household type is single persons younger than 62.  Single and two person households make up almost a third of all living arrangements in the Commonwealth and in 251 of our 351 towns and cities, half the units house 2 people or less.  In a full 120 municipalities, a quarter of people live alone.  And while the percentage of family (3-5 people) households remains steady, households of 6 or more have decreased by almost two-thirds.

Massachusetts grew more slowly over the last 50 years than the rest of the country, adding 1.3 million people (24%) while the country expanded by over 128 million people (63%).  Weather, taxes and the cost of living are often blamed, but we also lack places to grow.  Faster growing states like Texas, Florida, Arizona and California, have unincorporated land to create new towns and cities.  All our growth must take place within our existing communities.

While a lot of housing has been built in the last 20 years, the demographics of that growth is surprising.   123, or 35%, of municipalities are less populous than they were 50 years ago.  Of the state’s 25 largest communities, seven are still smaller than they were 50 years ago and five only attained their 1970 population in 2020.  Only nine of the 25 suburban or gateway cities grew in every census since 1970.  While the communities larger than 50,000 are home to 40% of our total population, they absorbed only 20% of our 1.3 million new residents.

How did this happen?  Well, there are two major drivers of housing demand: population growth and household size, which are rarely discussed in housing policy and zoning discussions. A town of 10,000 people in 1970 needed 3,322 housing units based on the state average of 3.01 people-per-household (pph). But that average has dropped to 2.34, over 20%, since 1970. So that town needs almost another thousand housing units, or 30%, to maintain the same population number.   To keep up with the state’s low growth rate of 0.5% per year and smaller household size, it would need almost 2,000, or 60%, more units.

No wonder housing is expensive and undersupplied.

We have created a mismatch between what we had and what we need for who we are now and who we will be.  69% of the state’s housing stock was built before 1970 for a very different demographic.  On top of that, during the 70’s most communities adopted restrictive, exclusionary zoning codes that made it almost impossible to build traditional workforce housing types, like 2 families and triple-deckers.  The only place in the state where you can build a triple-decker by-right is Somerville, a recent zoning change.

At the same time, contrary to popular understanding, public school enrollment has dropped by almost 72,000 students in the last 20 years while the number of enrolled students per household has gone down by 25%, from 0.4 to 0.3. Enrollment has dropped by 14,600 in the 25 biggest towns and cities alone.

MAPC reported a decade ago that there are enough family sized units in the state to meet demand, but many are filled with one- and two-person households.  Cities and towns that do not allow the full range of options force existing residents to choose between their communities and housing types appropriate for their stage of life, whether aging in place or moving home to start a new family.  Zoning that keeps everything “as it used to be” makes those choices impossible. Home Rule may be a tightly held and locally lauded foundation of the Commonwealth, but when used the wrong way it reduces individual choice, community resilience and erodes the tax base, long-term economic viability and competitiveness.

The population of the Commonwealth is diverse and so are its 351 towns and cities.  Communities range from urban to rural, colonial to modern, coastal to mountainous. Forty percent of the population is concentrated in 25 communities larger than 50,000 residents, while 165 are smaller than 10,000.  One community has a land mass of over 100 square miles, while another has only 1.25.

Each city and town needs to take a hard look at their own demographics and how these do or don’t reflect the state’s trends.  Many communities like Brookline and Milton, to name a few in the news, have come to different conclusions sometime based on what may be an incomplete picture of where they’ve been and are going. Every community, MBTA or not, needs to ask:

  • Who are we now, and is our community sustainable and resilient if we don’t deal with the changes that have already happened over the last 50 years?
  • How do we use zoning and other land use tools in responding to demographic changes?
  • Does existing zoning work for who we are now and who we will be in the future?
  • Are we making it harder or easier for long-term residents to stay in town and for our kids to be able to live here?

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to look at housing has as an ecosystem to allow for the full range of necessary options to serve who we are and who we will be.

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 If you are interested in the data behind this article, there are a number of good sources, but in particular we would recommend looking at MAPC’s Data Common and or UMass Donahue Institute’s Municipal Summaries pages.  Both provide easy to access and highly informative data about the cities and towns of the Commonwealth and were key in assembling the data used here.