Negative Impacts of Newton Housing Strategy

Newton TAB July 9, 2016

By Lynne LeBlanc

The push for higher density in Newton is renewed with the mayor’s recently released housing strategy.

But his strategy incorporates the same unsuccessful policies we have seen in so many other cities: the belief that more housing will equal lower costs. The problem is that this oversimplified “supply and demand” equation does not work in real estate. In municipalities using this strategy, home prices escalate precipitously — from Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington to New York City, Washington D.C. and Boston, Cambridge and Brookline.

We have seen the building boom in all these communities result in higher land costs that translate into higher real estate and rental costs — which then translate into less, rather than more affordable housing. In order to try to mitigate these rising costs, the most popular strategy seems to rely on building affordable or subsidized housing. Who ultimately pays the subsidy? It is paid by those buyers or renters who can afford “market” prices high enough to offset the subsidies. So overall land values increase and this entices builders, developers and land speculators to continue to build more expensive housing.

There are serious negative impacts to this strategy.

1. Often naturally affordable housing is eliminated in favor of new construction that is too expensive for current residents. This is the case with the proposal for the Orr block and Court Street as well, wherein nine units that were naturally affordable were torn down, and residents displaced, to make way for new, more expensive units. How is it good housing strategy to displace residents and then claim victory with subsidized units for which those residents either do not qualify or cannot afford without a subsidy? The new “market-rate” units inevitably gentrify the neighborhood and further drive up costs.

Affordable or subsidized housing units, the favorite bargaining chip for densification, should only start to count after lost naturally affordable housing is replaced. Using Court Street as a model, this would mean replacing the nine naturally affordable units ($800 to 1,200/month for a one- to two-bedroom), renting them at the same rate, and only then tabulating 20 percent affordable or subsidized units. Otherwise, we have nothing but a shell game being played by developers and the city, which becomes their enabler.

2. Between subsidized and market-rate units there is little room for Newton’s middle-income residents — most of whom do not qualify for subsidies and cannot afford the ever higher market rates of the new construction. The very people we would like to keep in Newton to make our community economically diverse are being squeezed out.

We must have a more inclusive and comprehensive view of housing in Newton. We need a rezoning moratorium that will allow time to consider the direction Newton’s residents and stakeholders wish to go.

I’d like to point out that the mayor has engaged in extensive consultations with developers, urban planners, lawyers, consulting firms, and the city’s Planning Department, but he has minimally engaged with Newton’s primary stakeholders — the residents and businesses. Please, talk to us before allowing rezoning that suits the needs of the few and excludes the needs of the many.

3. There is a great impact on infrastructure. Little to no planning is done with regards to roads, streets and sidewalks, increased traffic, inadequate public transportation, underground sewer and water, school overcrowding, essential services such as fire and police, and city administration. Unplanned growth in these services will drive up taxes and contribute to ever higher costs in Newton — another factor that will make Newton a city that is ever less affordable except to the wealthy or subsidized and will exclude many of the current middle-class families, seniors, and residents of all walks of life.

Before we destroy our Garden City’s unique diversity and beauty we must seize the moment to do more than jump on the bandwagon of urbanization. A counter discussion can be found in Adam Greenfield’s “Against the Smart City,” which notes that problem solving should not come from top-down corporate strategies, but rather inclusive strategies that are respectful to the most important stakeholders — residents and businesses.

The desire to create a diversity of housing options need not be seen only as an obligation. It can instead be an opportunity for Newton to lead with innovations that go beyond build, build, build, which only yields ever higher housing costs and will result in lower quality of life.

Lynne LeBlanc is a member of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville