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Boston to test these 4 pilot programs to create more middle-income housing

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Mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab announced the first of its programs.
Mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab announced the first of its programs. David L. Ryan / Globe Staff

Mayor Marty Walsh’s Housing Innovation Lab announced on Monday four new pilot programs that will be launched this spring to help create and sustain middle-income housing in Boston.

The Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab was created last fall with the goal “to bring design thinking and innovation into solving Boston’s middle income housing challenge,” with funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Bloomberg gave grants and set up “i-teams” in 12 cities to solve challenging issues.

After doing fieldwork and research for the past six months in what they called their exploring phase, the members of the Housing Innovation Lab chose four pilot programs as trial experiments. They will all be launched in the next three months and will end after 12 months.

“These are opportunities to test different concepts that could become policy,” Marcy Ostberg, Boston’s i-team program co-manager, said in the meeting.

This program coincides with the Mayor’s “Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030” plan to create 20,000 new units of middle-income housing by 2030. Middle-income housing is defined as affordable to households in the income range of $50,000 to $125,000 per year, as $50,000 is often where subsidies are cut off.

“Impact and feasibility is what we looked for,” Ostberg said of the lab’s first round of pilot programs. “We were really thinking about ones that had significant community support.”

Density Bonus Policy

This program is going to be tested in Jamaica Plain, South Boston, and Roxbury, where the lab hopes to reduce the cost of building and increase the number of affordable units by allowing additional density in buildings.

One example of increasing density would be to relax height restrictions on buildings, allowing developers to build higher up and therefore including more affordable units.

Compact Living

This pilot program has the goal of creating more “innovation units,” which have lower square-foot minimums than are currently mandated by the city.

The South Boston waterfront has experimented with innovation units, or micro-apartments, but their small size does not equal small rents – the units are still unaffordable to many.

The Housing Innovation Lab team is planning a competition for a developer to build compact living units on a city-owned parcel with the intent of inspiring other architects and developers to build well-designed homes that are also affordable.

“Our idea is to push the idea of compact units beyond studios and one-bedrooms,” Susan Nguyen, Boston’s i-team program co-manager, said over the phone during the meeting. She wants there to be two- and three-bedroom innovation units as well.

Community Land Trusts (CLTs)

CLTs are formed when a local non-profit takes over a parcel of land and uses it for something beneficial to the community, many times for affordable housing.

The Housing Innovation Lab wants to create an assistance program to help communities set these trusts up for housing preservation. The lab hopes this reduces the cost to buy and own housing.

Home Buying Portal

The Housing Innovation Lab is also working to create a portal especially geared toward first time homebuyers that don’t know where to begin their search. The program will help homebuyers understand what kinds of loans they qualify for or whether they can get government assistance.

It will also help to guide them to a neighborhood that fits their specific needs in the hopes that everyone is not moving to the same areas.

What’s next?

The Housing Innovation Lab plans to host a launch event this spring where it will have a compact unit for people to tour, models of density bonus developments, and user experience testing for the Home Buying Portal.

The team is still in the process of creating metrics and specific goals to measure the effectiveness of each of these pilot projects.

“A lot of ideas and solutions need to come together to make change,” Ostberg said.