Main Streets for Housing

Here in Boston one of the late Thomas Menino’s most visible legacies has been the Main Streets program, which he adopted from a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Based around compact concentrations of businesses called Main Streets Districts and run from the neighborhood instead of from City Hall, the program provides a forum for small businesses owners, consultant resources and research. Main Streets programs also promote patronage of existing businesses, run community events, organize community meetings and work to make the district attractive to new businesses. They help people who want to start businesses find spaces and they help landlords with vacancies find tenants.

It works very well. Storefronts are more attractive, business districts are cleaner and most neighborhoods have a pretty good variety of business types. I would bet that in most of the city, businesses inside a Main Streets District do better than those outside of it.

The Main Streets directors I know are also very knowledgable about the importance of simplified zoning, infill development, mixed-use buildings, walkability and access to transit. But the program is limited to businesses. I think Boston should start a similar one for housing.

For the smallholder trying to rent out an unused portion of a home they own, Boston presents the same maze of regulation and review as it does for the small business owner. Boston zoning is nonsensical: almost every existing building is in someway at variance with its zoning and this was done deliberately, so that people would take part in the “community process.” A Main Streets-like program for housing would allow the zoning code to be greatly simplified by taking the place of the community process so that something like painting your house wouldn’t involve two public meetings and a hearing at the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In contrast, the same bureaucratic nightmare that plagues the smallholder is a veritable feast for big developers with armies of lawyers ready to pounce on every loophole. Large projects go through the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Large Project Review, the committees of which have been known to be packed with friends of the developer; politics can derail the process — during his time as mayor, Menino was accussed of favoring developers who supported his election campaigns and blocking projects of those who didn’t; and meetings have been scheduled in times and places that were inconvenient for community members to attend. The BRA has also been known to not collect its own fees or enforce its own labor rules.

A Main Streets for housing program could provide more accountability and could foster better relations, or at least cooperation between landlords, developers, tenants and other residents. It could also work with community development corporations on stabilization and affordability — even the regular community process groups working now are largely composed of and their meetings attended by the homeowning, middle class white people of the neighborhood. Renters, poor people and nonwhite people are frequently conspicuous by their absence and so the meetings generally revolve around what’s best for the homeowning, middle class white people.

I think it could work.


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