However you feel about them, teardowns are a fact of life around Boston, particularly in the wealthy western suburbs. A few thousand square feet of land in a prime school district can hold a lot more potential value than the little house initially built upon it. But the teardown story isn’t just about modest Capes giving way to mega-mansions. With multifamily zoning so hard to come by around Boston, and buyers craving low-maintenance luxury in a neighborhood setting, worn-out duplexes can be an even more attractive teardown target for developers.
Consider 68 Pleasant St. in Needham, where a nondescript, aluminum-sided two-family sold for $550,000 in 2015. By 2018, a new owner had demolished the old duplex, roughly doubled the home’s footprint (not without pushback from neighbors and the zoning board of appeals), and built a pair of luxurious town house-style condos. The units sold for $875,000 and $930,000.
In some ways, it’s a response to the original teardown phenomenon — or at least to the spate of enormous houses built in many suburban settings over the past two decades.
Preston Hall, a Needham realtor with Keller Williams Boston South West, argues that when Gen-Xers left home years ago, their parents could typically manage their modestly sized empty nests and continue living in them until or well into retirement. “Now what we’re seeing, especially in affluent communities where folks have been building these 5,000-square-foot new houses, when their kids take off they’re left in these huge homes, and they’re rambling around in them,’’ Hall said. “They just want a smaller home that has all the bells and whistles — the stainless-steel appliances, high ceilings, high-end millwork and finishes. But they don’t want the 5,000-square-foot home anymore.’’
Some empty-nest buyers still need to commute to Boston for another 10 years or so until they retire, Hall added, and many own second homes as well. That means they’re willing to trade a large single-family lot on the outskirts of town for less upkeep and a more central location. And since two-family homes built a century ago are often in prime spots near walkable downtown districts, a gut remodel or teardown-and-rebuild can transform a neglected rental property into a desirable high-end town house. From some of the rebuilt duplexes Hall has seen in Needham, for example, buyers “can walk to the commuter rail, there’s a lot of restaurants,’’ he said. “They don’t want the big yard or anything; they want to be able to close the door and go to Florida.’’
The other part of this equation is the relative rarity of multifamily zoning in the communities outside Boston. A new report commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance looked at multifamily zoning regulations in 100 communities outside Boston and found a “paper wall’’ of regulations that protects the primacy of single-family homes. “Very little land is zoned for anything but single-family houses, and we don’t have a lot of land zoned for two- or three-family housing,’’ said Amy Dain, the policy researcher who authored the report.
In towns like Dover and Norwell, for example, multifamily housing is allowed in theory — but the requirements in place are so restrictive that, in practice, multifamily housing is “in effect prohibited,’’ according to the report. To build a new three-decker in either town would require a lot three-quarters of an acre in size, for example. And even in towns where multifamily housing is more prevalent, the areas zoned for it are often already built out to permissible capacity. As Needham’s official affordable housing plan concluded, “There is a near absence of developable vacant land that is zoned to permit multifamily housing, even two-family dwellings.’’
“It’s so hard to build multifamily housing around here, it’s no wonder developers are looking to work with urban land however they can,’’ said Anthony Flint, senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a Cambridge think tank. “The bottom line is, there’s not enough housing to accommodate all the participants in this booming economy,’’ he added, “so it’s not surprising you would find developers scrambling to build wherever the zoning will allow, even if it means a teardown.’’
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council projects that multifamily units — whether condos or apartments — will account for as much as 62 percent of new housing demand in Greater Boston from 2010 to 2040, as young adults remain single longer and aging boomers seek to downsize.
There’s nothing wrong with a house and a yard, Flint said, but the single-family home is an over-abundant relic of the 20th century with a stranglehold on our zoning maps. “It’s also not what those seeking shelter — whether millennials or aging boomers — want or need,’’ he said.
To help meet the demand for more affordable and equitable urban housing, Minneapolis recently banned single family-only zoning — a policy rooted in segregation and de facto racism — to make any residential lot fair game for a duplex or triplex, while Oregon’s state legislature passed a similar measure.
Two-families, by contrast, are a piece of what urban planners call the “missing middle’’ between sprawling single-family lots and apartment buildings. Outside Boston, “there’s a lot of area zoned for single-family homes, and a lot of projects that make their way through that are bigger — say 30 units on the edge of town or in the center,’’ Dain said. “You get those larger projects, but you can’t build at the neighborhood level these two-, three-, four-family houses. So there’s a lot of talk about the need for that but very little zoning for it.’’
While the process can still require hoop-jumping, rebuilding a duplex on an existing lot that’s already been zoned for multifamily housing is generally an easier hurdle to clear than getting approval for a new multifamily project, particularly if most of the structure or footprint will be preserved. And by building two similar units on a single lot, developers can take advantage of economies of scale, Hall said. “They’re making twice the profits, so you can see why they’re so much more attractive to the builders,’’ Hall said. “You combine the demographic driving force with the numbers on the builder’s side, and that’s what’s really creating this huge demand.’’
Zoning regulations aren’t the only reasons two-family homes are desirable for developers — they also fall into something of a sweet spot in the Massachusetts statewide building code, said Dave Supple, founder of New England Design and Construction in Boston. Most one- and two-family homes adhere to a different (and generally more lenient) building code than larger properties. “As soon as you go from a two-family to a three-family, you’re required to sprinkler the whole home, so at that point then and there that’s a large expense,’’ Supple said.
Supple hasn’t taken on any teardown projects, but has helped homeowners expand their single-family homes to include accessory apartments. “The thing I’ve seen a lot more of in the past five years is folks pairing up with their in-laws or parents,’’ Supple said. That can end up being a win-win for everyone, allowing aging parents to downsize or live in the care of family members, while potentially providing built-in baby-sitting at a time when child-care costs have skyrocketed.
It also can create de facto multifamily housing without disrupting the character of a single-family neighborhood. Dain said in-law apartments and other such accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, offer the most practical workaround to get the housing we need in the places we need it with the least community upheaval. “Politically, the most difficult thing to do is change a single-family district’’ to allow more multifamily zoning, Dain said. But ADUs “are absolutely a way to add housing to existing residential neighborhoods while avoiding teardowns,’’ she added.
As controversial as they are, those teardowns are perhaps an inevitable byproduct of our housing shortage — and a stark symptom of housing inequity. “In general, if you have a limited supply of housing, then the people with the most ability to pay are the ones who will get the housing,’’ Dain said. “They’ll upgrade it to meet their needs, and that’s the situation we’re in.’’
In that sense, two-family teardowns are similar: If the rebuilt structure replaces two moderately priced apartments with a pair of luxury condos, it’s meeting the demands of a subset of consumers but hardly creating new affordable housing stock. “It’s adding to the supply for the region, but it’s frustrating at the local level,’’ Dain said.
Flint recognizes that teardowns are unpopular, but said rebuilding on an existing site is still preferable to building a new home in a far-off field, “especially as these parcels are situated in more urban, amenity-rich, and possibly transit-accessible locations,’’ he said. But cities and towns could stanch the practice of teardowns, he added, by legalizing ADUs, removing regulatory barriers and minimum-parking requirements, and doubling down on greater density in town centers or near transit stations.
“Reform zoning and the approval process, build more multifamily housing, and you will see less of these sort of desperate measures,’’ he said.