Suburban ‘Rent Deserts’ are a Problem
Boston, a city of fewer than 1 million people, is surrounded by layers and layers of suburbs linked to the city by subways, ferries, and a commuter rail. The suburbs’ opposition to a new state law requiring them to zone some land for apartments illustrates why U.S. rental housing is scarce and rents have soared.
The sprawling town of Hamilton, with 8,000 residents, told The Boston Globe that rental housing will “destroy the well-being of our community.” Other municipalities warn their schools, infrastructure, and police and fire departments will be overwhelmed by population increases or that they don’t have enough land to accommodate multifamily rental properties.
Not all of Boston’s suburbs are opposed to building more multifamily housing. Before the state law passed, the city of Newton had already started revamping its zoning regulations to encourage more rental properties around transit stops. But three out of four of the 23,000 lots in Newton are currently zoned for single family homes.
Suburban neighborhoods around the country account for more than two-thirds of “rental deserts,” according to a report by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. The deserts are mostly white and mostly higher-income, and less than 20 percent of their housing stock is rentals, compared to a range of 50 percent to 80 percent in areas with ample rental properties. Low inventories nationwide have fueled double-digit rent increases from Idaho to Florida.
In the city of Boston, house prices have skyrocketed, so suburbs with mass transit are somewhat more affordable for lower- and middle-income workers who commute downtown to their jobs. But rental deserts, with their “not-in-my-backyard politics” are “a significant factor in limiting opportunities for rental households and for lower-income renters in particular,” the housing center said.
Massachusetts’ new law requires cities and towns to zone areas around public transportation for apartments. Still in question is whether the law will result in more affordable housing because deciding whether to build in these zones is still determined by the suburb and whether the tracts appeal to developers. Municipalities that do not comply with the zoning requirement will jeopardize state grants for utility and street improvements and amenities like bike paths.
Harvard points to Massachusetts’ and similar laws in a few states like California and Oregon as steps that could expand the rental options for workers.
But grumbling about the law by dozens of Boston’s suburbs also shows just how big a challenge building the badly needed rental housing will be.
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