February 12, 2015: Belmont 2040: Housing

February 12, 2015: Belmont Citizen-Herald

“Housing diversity.”  It’s a hot-button issue in Belmont.  Some local officials in Belmont recently have sought to conjure up images of housing diversity as a threat to the character of our community.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  Increasing housing diversity references the need to create work-force housing in Belmont.  An increased supply of work-force housing is critical to the long-term viability of both our state and local economies.

Consider the December 2014 report of the United States Chamber of Commerce. The CoC noted that improving access to housing “is one of the greatest ways to boost. . .economic growth in America. . .If housing were just about housing, the topic would be important enough. But it’s about more than that.”

The consequence of lacking adequate housing opportunities, according to the CoC, is that “highly productive cities [are] walled off from many of the people who are best able to contribute to the local economy.” “We could do a lot worse,” the CoC said, “than offering job creators and recent grads decent places to live that don’t suck up all their capital or force them into far-off communities.”

The CoC analysis reflects conclusions reached more locally by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).  MAPC is the regional planning agency serving the 101 communities of Metro Boston. MAPC reported in 2014 that its planning region, which includes Belmont, will need to build 435,000 new homes by 2040.  Two-thirds of these, MAPC found, will need to be multi-family units (such as condominiums, townhouses and apartments).

The changing face of Massachusetts supports the creation of additional multi-family housing, MAPC found.  The state’s households, for example, are smaller today, decreasing from an average of 3.5 people in 1970 to 2.5 people today.  Even if a community’s population stays constant, MAPC said, its need for housing units will increase.

In addition, the population will become younger in the next 25 years.  In Belmont, more than 25% of all residents are age 55 or older.  Not only will those aging residents need smaller places to live (if they are to remain in town, while living independently), but their retirement from the workforce, MAPC noted, will deplete “the supply of our region’s most critical asset: a skilled, well-educated workforce.”  An adequate supply of quality affordable housing is essential to attracting new, younger workers.

To continue to attract that new work force, “a community not only has to be special, but it has to be attainable,” according to Don Ensign, one of the founders of the Design Workshop, an international urban planning firm.

Attainability can be measured by housing affordability.  An even more accurate measure of affordability, however, is “location affordability,” a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) metric combining both housing and transportation costs.  For a community to be affordable, HUD says, the combined cost of housing and transportation should not exceed 45% of income.  On average, Belmont’s current location affordability index is 53%.

Belmont residents can sit back and hope that the world won’t really be different in 2040.  We can insist that we like things the way they are right now, and that change represents a threat to our community’s character. Or Belmont residents can help contribute to the viability of our community’s future.

That doesn’t mean that Belmont must have large-scale dense development everywhere.  But to consistently oppose smaller, denser housing anywhere in Belmont is wrong.  We owe it to ourselves, to our children, and to our grandchildren to recognize the needs of maintaining a vibrant economy, and a vibrant community, not only in 2015, but in 2040 and beyond.

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