Carrots for homes

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The Greater Boston Housing Report Card released last week concludes that 40R and 40S “have established an impressive track record in a very short period of time.” Given the numerous reasons that communities cite for opposing development, it is great that the state has provided a reason in the form of the 40R/40S financial incentive to allow dense housing development in town centers, along transit lines, and in other areas that make sense. Whether the approach is really working is critical information for policymakers. Despite the slowdown in the market, greater Boston remains one of the most expensive areas in the country to buy a house, and our current pattern of large lot McMansionization is consuming too much land to be sustainable.

The Report Card states that 15 municipalities have approved 40R districts, with a potential buildout of almost 6,000 units. As none of the units have been built yet, some questions remain. The goal of the program was to create a surplus of land zoned for dense housing so builders could respond to market demand as it arises. If the 6,000 potential units are only part of this ‘surplus’, the number is small, as buildout will happen over many years. If on the other hand, the 6,000 potential units are actual projects, the new construction would have an impact on the market and patterns of land development.

But if most communities approved 40R districts only as a mechanism to permit discrete projects, then is the program producing a surplus of land zoned for dense housing? How many of the projects were already on the table as proposed 40Bs? And finally, why are none of the approved 40Rs for single family housing? Is it because they are mostly converted 40Bs, which tend to be multi-family? Or because financial incentives are not enough to get towns to allow construction of homes that might bring kids from families with lower incomes than most other families in the town?