Boston kicks off housing innovation program

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced yesterday that the Housing Innovation Lab, which launched in October of last year, was ready to start a set of 12-month pilot programs. According to the press release, the lab will partner with city departments, entrepreneurs, advocates and universities over the next three months to put the programs into practice.

The three innovations to be piloted are density bonuses in the inclusionary development policy, using city owned land to launch a competition for “compact living”, helping get more land under the control of community land trusts and developing a web application to facilitate home buying.

Few details have been released as of yet, but the mayor did say that the compact living competition will involve the Boston Society of Architects to design small units and he spoke about “zoning relief” for middle class housing, which did not appear to be mentioned in the press release.

The compact living idea is promising. Small apartments and houses are one of the ways Tokyo has remained affordable (according to Nathan Lewis, a typical Tokyo studio is 250 square feet) and the average American home size has increased dramatically since the 1950s.

new-house-sizes-graph(Graphic from Becoming Minimalist)

That’s actually old data, too. According to CNN, the average size of a new single family home in the United States reached about 2600 square feet in 2013. Considering the dramatic fall in household size since just 1973, it’s shameful. It’s as though the purpose of housing was less shelter for people and more so Americans can buy bigger televisions.

It’s not very good compared to the rest of the world, either. According to Elle Decor, Western European houses are all average under 1500 square feet and in Asia, under 1,000 square feet.

The real question is what needs to be designed? Going back to Lewis, the Japanese have been building small homes for years. As in, they have three-bedroom apartments with 800 square feet.

Moreover, this is Boston and so planners need only look towards the best-loved, most photographed and highest-valued neighborhoods to get an idea of what works.

As noted previously, Lawrence Street in the South End appears to have been build by infilling the rear yards of houses on Appleton Street. The typical lot size for the area, is 803 square feet — and each house still has a small rear yard that looks to be 150 square feet, making the foot print about 650 square feet. People in the South End aren’t packed in like sardines or Green Line riders.

 

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