Rezoning is in the news again in Newton. I have deliberately avoided most of the coverage. Developer kingpins aided by pliant politicians and high-density CODS housing activists always seem to get what they want around here. Local elections are undermined by millions in developer-funded PR campaigns and outright cash injections to pro-development activist groups, while local residents protesting the luxury developments are ignored, demonized, and even publicly bullied by an elected city councilor, Brenda Noel (Ward 6).
After the dust settles, we’re inevitably left with thousands of units of luxury housing that do nothing to bring down housing costs in the city of Newton.
Hundreds of luxury apartments have already been thrown up in Newtonville. They include 28 Austin Street, the parcel across from the Newtonville Star Market which the former mayor and city councilors agreed to lease to the developer for just $1,050,000 for 99 years, over the protests of Newtonville residents. The 28 Austin Street website now boasts “luxury boutique living,” starting at $3,700 to rent a 1,050 square feet apartment:
Across the Pike, developer Mark Development didn’t have to rip up a signed agreement with neighbors and local councillors like it did for Riverside. Instead, the former mayor and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce helped get him what it demanded, again over the objections of neighbors.
This piece of commentary in the local newspaper summed up what everyone now knows: Dumping thousands of units of luxury housing is a tool of wealth creation for developers. It does nothing to reduce housing costs in Newton:
The belief that more housing will add affordability for Newton is a false premise as well. A look at Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, South Boston, East Boston, Charlestown, Waltham, Watertown tells us all we need to know: large developments drive up land prices, drive up rents and make naturally affordable housing less available and less affordable. It creates a tiered class with subsidized housing for those who qualify, and expensive housing for everyone else. These are the facts and wishful thinking doesn’t change this reality.
Here are the facts concerning the former Orr block. The low-cost apartments and small businesses on Washington Street in Newtonville were quickly demolished to make way for Mark’s new replacement for the Orr block, Trio Newton. The work is wrapping up now. Have housing prices dropped as high-density housing activists have promised, because hundreds of new units are now being added to the supply?
No! If anything, it’s gotten more expensive to live in Newtonville. The facts are in the numbers. On Google, Trio promotes “luxury apartments in Newton.” Click through to the Trio website, where the least expensive option is apparently $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio!
Good luck if you’re a senior on a fixed income, a new immigrant, disabled, or a young person who grew up in Newton and wants to move back to your home town. Using the 30% rule of thumb for housing costs, excluding utility costs, and generously assuming Mark Development isn’t stacking additional fees on top of the listed rental prices at Trio Newton, you would need an annual income of $104,000 to afford the least expensive studio apartment.
At nearby 28 Austin Street, a young family would need an income of at least $144,000 to rent the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment (1,050 square feet). The most expensive (1,365 square feet) 2 bedroom unit, at $7,500 per month, would require an annual income of $300,000.
Note that the median household income in Massachusetts is $77,378, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The development battle has now turned to single-family housing. The mayor, city planners, developers, and some city councilors want to abolish single-family housing, by “upzoning” wide swathes of neighborhoods currently filled with existing single-family homes and convert them to luxury condos and townhouses by right.
It will happen in Newton Corner. The Lake. Newtonville. West Newton. Auburndale. Newton Lower Falls. Newton Upper Falls. And so on.
If you thought the first wave of Newton tear-downs that eviscerated the stock of older, small single-family homes in the city was bad, wait until the new plan gets underway. Don’t think for a second that the vast majority of multifamily units under such a scheme would be built for anyone other than those who can afford, as 28 Austin puts it, “luxury boutique living.” The remaining working class and middle class households in the city of Newton will be pushed out, while the developer class will be left laughing all the way to the bank. (Update: This is no longer true per Mayor Fuller. Details below.)
The Newton Villages Alliance got things right in its latest newsletter, noting:
The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.
For a taste of what’s to come, check out this video which chronicles the failure of upzoning in Austin.
Update 12/19/20: Mayor Fuller and the ZAP have pulled back on “by right” multifamily conversions citywide. Here’s what she said in her newsletter dated 12/18/20:
I have had many discussions lately with our residents, members of our building community, City Councilors and Planning Department staff about where we are on evaluating and updating our zoning ordinance. These conversations come near the end of a year of intensive reviews of possible updates for our residential areas and, in the last few weeks, the engagement of 500+ residents in discussions of various options.I’m pleased that a consensus developed in the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee last Monday night. There is agreement on three important points:(1) To wait to vote on an overall updated zoning ordinance beyond 2021 so Councilors can undertake considerably more analysis, assure broader understanding of options to address shared goals,* and develop more of a consensus,(2) To move away from considering both two family zoning as well as the conversion of very large homes into up to six units as by right options applied everywhere in Newton,(3) To use 2021 to delve deeper into critical challenges that our zoning can be used to address, including how our village centers and mixed use areas can better accommodate housing that is affordable at a range of price points, support our local businesses, protect our environment, and create more vibrant community life for everyone.