Creating Housing for Everyone in Boston: The Housing Innovation Lab

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The three-person I-Team of the Boston's Housing Innovation Lab has quite the challenge -- keep Boston a city that isn't just for the rich and the poor -- and places that the working middle class can still call home.

Funded by a three-year $1.3 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team grant, the lab is guided by a planner, an educator and an artist -- an intellectually diverse team assembled to address the challenge of building and sustaining housing in Boston for middle-income working families.

There are two co-chairs: Susan Nguyen and Marcy Ostberg. Nguyen was program director at the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, which houses the Housing Lab. She has a master's degree in urban planning from the Harvard School of Design. Ostberg is a graduate of Tufts University, where she studied urban and environmental policy, and has taught high school biology. Sabrina Dorsainvil, a graduate of Massachusetts College of Art and the Parsons School, joined the team in August.

In October 2014, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh released his long-anticipated housing report. The report stated Boston will need to build 53,000 units of housing by 2030 to keep up with population growth. One of its major findings was that only 5% of the current city housing stock was affordable for a two-income working family earning $50,000 a year; Only 9% of the available rental housing was affordable for that same family (based on 35% of income going toawrd rent). The report estimated that 140,000 units during the next five years would be required to meet that need, or about 9,000 units a year.

The New Urban Mechanics office applied to the Bloomberg Philanthropy Innovation grant program to help find solutions, and the grant was awarded in January 2015. The co-chairs were appointed and the Housing Innovation Lab -- an innovation in itself -- got underway in late spring.

The lab's defined objective is that housing is a basic need, and a city without a middle class was not sustainable for the long run. If that middle-income base could not afford to live in Boston -- if they in fact left -- there would be a two-income city -- those in subsidized housing and those in luxury housing.  The co-chairs determined to focus on where the income base housing ended -- at the $50,000 for a two-wage earner household. The team wants to systematically analyze and find solutions for housing of families who do not qualify for subsidies, but are priced far above luxury housing.

Nothing illustrates this need better than at Jackson Commons on Columbus Avenue opposite the Jackson square MBTA stop. Of the 37 apartments built by Urban Edge, 29 are available to those earning 60% to 120% of the American Median Income (AMI). Shaina Korma Houston, project manager, told the Bay State Banner in October there were 1,400 eligible applicants who applied for those 29 units.

The Housing Innovation Lab will test innovations and solutions to close that enormous gap for families like those 1,371 applicants who wanted to live at Jackson Commons, but were unable to do so.

From the start the I-Team recognized three main aspects of housing for the middle class family: how to control the costs to build, to buy and to own or rent.

One idea to lower costs is to build denser at transit stops. Another is unit size. Solutions need to be found for those households whose income and/or family size increases, but who wish to remain in the same neighborhood.

"We are going to explore, experiment and evaluate," said Nguyen.

The JP/Rox Plan convened at  the same time as the Housing Innovation Lab became fully staffed. Like the Lab, JP/Rox is also concerned not just with what is being built, but how that impacts the neighborhood and how it will affect the residents of that community.

In September the team went out to the Peace Park in Egleston Square and Stony Brook MBTA stop with an old fashioned grade school blackboard and asked everyone who stopped by "What do you look for in your house?" The chalkboard was set up at the first JP/Rox workshop, and people wrote ideas such as: affordable, schools, grocery stores, clean streets, energy-efficient, and landlords who care.

The Housing Innovation Lab is city-wide and is partnered with the Department of Neighborhood Development and the Boston Redevelopment Authority.  The I-Team will look at the zoning code as mechanism to control the three costs, height and density around transit stations, and 'accessory units' for seniors who want to stay in their old home; An accessory unit is a new unit that is cut from a larger house and the remaining living area rented out. "This is not in the building code," said Nguyen. Land cost is also a matter of concern especially determining the most efficient use of city-owned land and land still under urban renewal requirements.

Ostberg has been concerned with issues facing low-income families, but these are not dissimilar from middle-income families, especially those with a single head of a household. She is concerned the cost of living has to be factored in as well; Utilities, maintenance, parking, healthcare, daycare and transportation. These questions do not involve the typical housing developers, except for social housing agencies such as Urban Edge or Codman Square NDC; The experience of the hollistic approach to housing honed during the past four decades by Boston's social housing agencies comes closest to the Housing Innovation Lab approach.

The larger fabric of the city is the concern largely of civic designer Dorsainvil. She led much of the neighborhood conversations around Egleston Square and Stony Brook MBTA stop. "Human-centered design" is how the I-Team referred to it, wanting to engage and involve people in what is now the American culture.

This point is exemplified by what Boston University professor Bruce Schulman wrote in 2001, "The nation is no longer a melting pot, but discrete people sharing the same place. The melting pot has become the salad bowl."

Talking with the leaders of the Innovation Lab, the main concerns of the local development at 3200 Washington St. was raised. Who is this housing for? Those who live here today or who will live here tomorrow? The I -Team said almost in one voice "both."  The educator and the civic designer together will need to find the innovation that keeps the new urban salad bowl well-tossed.

The Bloomberg Innovation grant is a challenge to experiment with solutions. Nguyen explained that the Housing Lab is trying and testing new things across the city. During September's JP/Rox workshop, Marie Mercurio, BRA planner for Jamaica Plain, said the same thing, "This is a pilot; We are trying new things."

Yet the Bloomberg Philanthropy program acknowledges failure. It recognizes the inevitability that efforts may not succeed and that ideas may not work as planned. The ideas on the Egleston Square chalkboard, or on the flip charts at the JP/Rox workshop may raise false hopes among those who live in the city today.

The Housing Innovation Lab is going to try and find out as it explores, experiments and evaluates how to maintain the economic and by extension cultural diversity of those who live in Boston today and tomorrow.

The I Team. The Artist The Planner and the Educator l- r Sabrina Dorsainvil. Susan Nguyen. and Marcy Ostberg.

Richard Heath

The I-Team. Left to right: Sabrina Dorsainvil, Susan Nguyen, and Marcy Ostberg.


The chalkboard at the Egleston square Peace park as the I Team gathers community ideas.

Housing Innovation Lab

The chalkboard at the Egleston Square Peace park as the I-Team gathered community ideas.


I Team member Sabrina Dorsainvil ( second from L) takes notes while John Dolzell of the BRA talks with those at table #1 during the JP/Rox workshop Sept 28

Richard Heath

I-Team member Sabrina Dorsainvil (second from left) during the JP/Rox workshop on September 28th.


The Challenge Only 23 % of the housing in Boston is affordable to those earning $50,000 a year can live in Boston..and Jamaica Plain is not one of those affordable neighborhoods

Housind Innovation Lab

The Challenge: Only 23% of the housing in Boston is affordable to those earning $80,000 a year .and Jamaica Plain is not one of the affordable neighborhoods.