• Opinion
  • November 9, 2018
  • 8 minutes
  • 1

To solve its housing affordability crisis, Boston has turned to residents

Opinion: An experimental — and physical — resident-centred approach has reshaped policy

Boston housing affordability crisis

This piece was written by Lauren Greenawalt, a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America. For more like this, see our cities newsfeed.


Boston, like many US cities, is experiencing an affordability crisis. More than 50% of city residents are spending over 30% of their income on housing — and that number may continue to rise. From 2010 to 2015, housing costs rose 36% citywide and as high as 70% in certain neighbourhoods. In search of solutions, the city has turned to the ultimate housing experts — Boston residents.

Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab (iLab) — co-housed in the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics — engages residents in testing and refining housing policy.

Marcy Ostberg, Director of the iLab, explains why the iLab constantly pursues new ways to gather resident feedback. “In government, we often spend a couple years researching, researching, researching to create what we think are solutions, only to discover that nobody wants them.” Instead, Marcy argues, “we need a quicker, iterative approach to create policies that are more effective at meeting needs.”

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For inspiration on one housing experiment, the iLab looked to other US cities who have allowed developers to build smaller units in order to increase housing production. While Boston officials thought such a policy may help improve affordability, the city knew it would only be effective if residents were interested in living in smaller units than the city had seen before.

So the iLab partnered with the Boston Society of Architects and livelight to create a fully-furnished unit that, at 385 square feet, stood smaller than the previous minimum housing size. They toured the mobile unit in six neighbourhoods, speaking with more than 2,000 residents along the way.

Residents were able to interact with an otherwise abstract policy concept

As they sat in the living room, checked out the bathroom, and stood next to the kitchen appliances, residents were able to interact with an otherwise abstract policy concept. And, after doing so, they provided the iLab with invaluable feedback — and through their overwhelming interest, proved the viability of a smaller living policy.

The experiment helped shape Boston’s Compact Living Policy, approved by the Boston Planning and Development Agency in October. Most notably, it filled in the details that could only be gained through resident tours of the tiny unit.

Many visitors couched their interest in smaller living with a number of “ifs.” For example, residents were interested in similar sized units if units felt as open as the one on tour. So now, the policy requires compact units to meet particular window size, light level and ceiling height requirements. Visitors also shared that their interest in downsizing depended on if there were common spaces in the development. To address this need, the policy requires that developers create such areas.

The data gathered through this experiment was far richer and more nuanced than what would have been gleaned through a more traditional route, such as sharing proposed square footage through a community meeting. But gathering data isn’t the only way that the iLab improves housing policy.

The iLab has also engaged residents to test if draft policies will meet their needs. In 2017, the city drafted a zoning policy that would allow homeowners in particular neighbourhoods to build additional dwelling units (ADUs) on their properties. ADUs, sometimes known as in-law suites, are thought to help prevent displacement by bringing homeowners additional income.

After identifying interested homeowners through community meetings, the iLab visited residents’ homes to see their potential ADU locations and to get their reactions to the proposed policy. Many of the residents shared their concerns about one particular component of the draft language — that no external changes could be made to the house. In order to comply with other building regulations, residents interested in ADUs noted they might need to add a window or external staircase.

In each step of the policymaking process, Boston is confronting the affordability crisis with the expert guidance of its residents

This led the city to make a seemingly small change to the policy. The final zoning language traded “no external changes” for “no expanded footprint,” a substantial amendment, which kept the spirit of the policy while addressing resident needs.

iLab Director Ostberg explains the importance of the policy tweak: “We could have proceeded with the draft language — and it would have failed in two years. Hopefully by testing language with residents we can get issues ironed out before we release it.”

While the iLab has helped Boston incorporate resident feedback into these two policies, their work is far from over. Both the Compact Living Policy and ADU Policy were implemented as two-year-long pilots.Throughout this time, the iLab will engage residents to identify how the policy, or its implementation, could better meet their needs.Their ongoing monitoring will ensure that in each step of the policymaking process, Boston is confronting the affordability crisis with the expert guidance of its residents.

This style of policymaking is global

The iLab is not alone in engaging residents to make better policy. New York City’s Service Design Studio and Austin’s Design, Technology and Innovation Office have taken similar approaches to tackle various policy challenges. In fact, this style of policymaking is global, with the UK Policy Lab and the Auckland Co-Design Lab serving similar functions in their countries.

All these places recognise the central element of policymaking that Marcy Ostberg pointed out: if you don’t test policy with residents, your solutions likely aren’t sustainable. By seeking out resident feedback early and often, governments can create more responsive policies to the trickiest problems that their cities face. — Lauren Greenawalt

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Michael Browning)

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