Mass. multi-family housing starts not keeping pace with goal

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, JUNE 10, 2014…. The state this year could again fall short of a Patrick administration goal of building 10,000 multi-family homes a year.

Preliminary numbers through the first quarter show Massachusetts is on pace to hit around 8,000 multi-family homes, similar to 2013, when 8,101 multi-family building permits were pulled. The administration is using the number of building permits to track progress towards the 10,000-a-year goal.

“This year, during the first quarter, we’re very close to last year,” said Aaron Gornstein, Gov. Deval Patrick’s undersecretary of housing and community development.

Gornstein struck a hopeful tone, adding, “If we continue as we are now, we would not reach 10,000, but we have three quarters left of the year.” In 2012, there were 5,479 permits pulled for multi-family units.

Patrick announced in November 2012 a goal of creating 10,000 multi-family housing units per year through 2020, particularly focusing on multi-family homes that would be near transit and city and town centers.

The goal is driven by demographics, as Baby Boomers exit the workforce and Generation Y, which favors multi-family housing near public transit and in walkable neighborhoods, needs to be drawn into the state’s labor force, according to a January 2014 report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

Building permits for multi-family homes reached a high of nearly 35,000 in the early 1970s. But the number plummeted throughout the decade, as permits for single-family home rose. Permits for multi-family homes edged out single-family homes in 2013 for the first time since the 1970s, according to a Patrick administration presentation made available at a meeting between administration officials and town and city officials on Tuesday.

The numbers were laid out to local officials at a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Commission by the Department of Housing and Community Development’s Larry Field, who called the recent increase in permits for multi-family housing “healthy but not good enough.”

The state could hit the goal of 10,000 multi-family homes per year sometime in the next few years.

“Part of it is just the pipeline of projects and when they occur,” Gornstein told the News Service. “So we know there’s a healthy pipeline of developments, particularly in some of the more significant cities, and it all depends on when that developer winds up their financing and then starts construction. So sometimes there’s a lag between when you are planning for a project and when it actually gets into construction. That’s part of the issue.”

Aside from hot markets in the Boston area, the state’s overall housing recovery has appeared to slow down since last year, according to Michael Goodman, associate professor of public policy at UMass Dartmouth. Single-family housing construction has also decelerated.

Part of the reason housing is not affordable is the difficulty in developing new housing, particularly multi-family units, he said. “The long-term reason is we are burdened here in Massachusetts with some very antiquated zoning policies,” he said.

Communities are also sometimes resistant to more housing, raising the cost of housing, he added.

Gornstein said the administration has been focusing on a regional planning process with cities and towns, identifying areas for development and for preservation.

The administration is also making planning grants available to cities in towns, such as MassWorks, which provides money for improvements to roadways, streetscapes and water and sewer infrastructure. The deadline for the 2014 round of MassWorks grant applications is Aug. 29.

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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