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Board sees influx of proposals for nine-unit condo buildings in East Boston

Zoning Board of Appeal Hearing 8-11-20

The Zoning Board of Appeals last week was scheduled to hear requests from different developers to put up the same basic sort of building at four locations in East Boston: Condo buildings with four floors and condos - all with nine parking spaces, although developers differed on whether they'd put the spaces on the ground floor or in a basement garage.

During one of the hearings, board member Mark Erlich said he was struck by the similarity of offerings and wondered if it was more of a coincidence - like a conscious decision to avoid ten units, because that would trigger the city's affordable-housing requirement, that either 14% of a new building's units be sold at a reduced "affordable" price or the equivalent amount of money be given to a BPDA affordable-housing fund.

"We're sure seeing a lot of nine-unit proposals today," Erlich said. "I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that ten will trigger affordable housing. I'm sure its a total coincidence.'

"I'm absolutely with you," board Chairwoman Christine Araujo agreed.

Richard Lynds, attorney for the project before the board when Erlich began to muse, at 839 Saratoga St. in Orient Heights, politely took exception. He said the developer, Volnay Capital, has, in the past, proposed a nine-unit building in East Boston with one set aside as affordable, although he acknowledged the company was not planning anything "affordable" for the Saratoga Street site.

Details on the hearings:

214 Havre St.

1:03:19 in the video. Dalfior Development won permission to put up a four-story, nine-unit building by combining two lots, one vacant, the other home to a single-family house in "deplorable condition," according to Dalfior attorney Richard Lynds. Two of the condos will have three bedrooms, the rest two. The new building will have a nine-space garage. At the request of neighbors: No roof deck. The mayor's office and the office of City Councilor Lydia Edwards supported the proposal.

21 Lexington St.

1:19:05 in the video. Developer David Gradus won permission to combine two lots and raze a three-unit building to put up a four-story, nine unit building that would have a mansard roof and other features to fit into what his attorney Jeff Drago called "historic Eagle Hill." All the units would have two bedrooms. The building would have nine parking spaces on the first floor and three roof decks for use by owners of the units on the top floor.

The BPDA recommended the board reject the proposal without prejudice because it was too large for the new lot, but the mayor's office supported the proposal - while Edwards took no position. Rejection without prejudice would have let Gradus come back in less than a year with a different proposal had the board voted that way.

Araujo had no problems with the general proposal, but told Drago to have the architect come back with garage door that doesn't just look like a solid slab of wood. "Solid doors are not acceptable, he should pay attention to that," she said, noting this is not the first time the board has raised this issue with this particular architect. Drago said that should not be a problem during the design review BPDA planners will now give the proposal.

839 Saratoga St.

1:46:05 in the video. Volnay Capital wanted to tear down a two-story, two unit building and put up a four-story, nine unit building on the Orient Heights stretch of the road. The board approved only six units, however, after BTD said it did not feel the nine-space garage would work.

Member Edward Deveau, who lives nearby, said he was particularly concerned about the area becoming too dense. He noted a 230-unit building going in around the corner on Addison Street and said that the Volnay building and a proposed eight-unit building right next door would mean a total of 17 units where now there are just six.

Lynds said the proposal had been approved by the Orient Heights Neighborhood Council, a group he said subjects proposals to rigorous review and does not give its OK lightly.

116 Waldemar Ave.

Thomas Falcucci originally sought permission to combine two lots and raze one building to put up a four-floor, nine-unit building with nine parking spaces, but he asked for and was granted a deferral.

Other East Boston hearings

The board approved a new four-unit condo building at 61 Falcon St and a third-story addition to a building at 200 Falcon St.

A majority of the board voted in favor of turning a vacant lot at 14B Geneva St. into a four-unit condo building. The proposal got four yes votes and two no votes (Araujo and Joseph Ruggiero), which means it was rejected, because state zoning law requires at least five yes votes. One resident praised the developer for promising to pave Geneva Street, a private way that he said now approximates "the surface of the moon," but Araujo said such side deals are not zoning matters. The BPDA urged rejection because the building - which could have been only two units without requiring ZBA approval - was too large for the lot.

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Comments

What the hell did they expect would happen?

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Voting closed 28

And why should developers be criticized for this? If the city didn't want nine-unit buildings to be exempt from this requirement, they shouldn't have passed the law that way.

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The city made a stupid rule and the developers are following it. Take a look at the sale price caps. I have a hard time believing that these even cover construction costs.

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Interesting, and of course it is no coincidence that all these projects stop at 9 units, just short of triggering any affordability requirement.

I am a little surprised and disappointed that in every case where her name is mentioned, councilor Lydia Edward -a true affordable housing champion- seemed to unconditionally endorse the project. She could have said something. Even the ZBA board where making our city affordable to all generally seems like an afterthought took notice!

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Instead of the BPDA, somebody might have been tracking this and noticed it sooner.

But without that, in pre-Covid-19 times, they probably wouldn't have all wound up on the same day's agenda, but been spread out over weeks and lots of other projects and nobody might have noticed, since the ZBA works on a case-by-case basis and the BPDA doesn't really care about projects that don't meet its threshold.

In this particular case, the board stopped meeting when the pandemic hit and is now trying to get out from under a major backlog of cases and they all wound up on the same agenda, where they stuck out like a sore thumb.

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Even more, this case is a good argument for citywide up-zoning so that all these developments could hit a higher number of units, including a share of affordable units, without playing political games to get support from neighborhood associations (many of which are exclusionary/unwelcoming to newcomers, to renters, to those who cannot attend regular evening meetings, and to those who won't pay fees to join; some of which accept kick-backs from developers for "approval"; and most of which don't match the citywide need for housing).

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The rules backfire in stupid ways like this, which means we just get less housing overall. Or the housing that is built is artificially more expensive to make up for the units designated "affordable".

We should have policy that encourages 16 unit buildings, rather than enduring "9". That on scale is going to put a lot more downward pressure on prices overall than the housing lottery advocated by activists.

The only fix is significantly more market rate housing. In a world where we didn't have rules like this and other zoning policy retarding the development of the overall market, there would naturally be a larger variety of housing at far more pricing points than just the high end to meet people's needs.

As long as the city insists on these policies, the people we want to help will get pushed out more and more because it otherwise just serves to inflate overall prices (similar to rent control, which has crippled places like SF and NYC). Instead of trying to control pricing, we should let the market set that, encourage more supply, and look for other policies like subsidies for low income people instead.

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What has market rate already given us? Rents on par with NYC. Affordable housing and rent control are the only feasible solution.

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That hasn't kept the market for units not subject to rent control from going sky-high; rather, it has probably exacerbated the problem as the rent-controlled units are essentially permanently removed from the market (they almost never turn over). You end up with a single person living in a three-bedroom unit because they'd never find a one-bedroom for the rent they're paying.

The problem in Boston, as in NYC, is that the creation of housing is artificially constrained. It has been too difficult/expensive to build new housing in Boston and as a result supply has been unable to keep up with the demand created by a robust local economy and a pre-Covid demographic trend which saw a decades-long exodus to the suburbs reversing.

Boston in the 1970s, with a moribund economy, didn't have a supply problem. Rather, it faced a crisis as the city was depopulating. That's when the City began requiring employees to reside in Boston -- to keep some of the middle class in the city.

When land is expensive and you lard on affordable housing set-asides, prevailing wage rules, kickbacks to neighborhood associations, etc. -- it gets hard to build for what buyers can afford or are willing to pay.

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The problem in Boston...is that the word "luxury" is slapped on everything that gets built here, and the creation cost of housing is artificially constrained inflated.

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Is just a marketing term. Most people don't aspire to "frugal" or "modest" or "economy" or "austere." "Affordable" is problematic because it typically means "income-restricted" in Boston. And there's nothing especially luxurious about the stick frame apartments that developers slap that word on.

If the demand ain't there, you're not gonna get a million dollars for a condo in Southie, whether or not it gets called "luxury" or has a Poggenpohl kitchen and a Sub-Zero fridge.

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and data has also shown much of the "demand" comes from foreign investors and speculators.

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Too bad the Seaport completely discredited it . .

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Edwards don't support the 21 Lexington proposal. She didn't oppose it, either, leaving it to the board's discretion.

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Lynds likes to play the "from the neighborhood" card, but has no problem selling it out.

IMO, low-income housing and workforce housing–with actually realistic ceilings–should be triggered every 3 and 7 units, respectively, in otherwise "market rate" buildings. Certain types or a certain number of zoning variances should also trigger additional requirements.

And putting money into the fund instead of building the units either shouldn't be an option at all, or should go to cover abutters' rent/property tax increases for a period of years. You want to build it in the neighborhood? The existing neighborhood should have an opportunity to live in the building, or at the least, stay in the neighborhood.

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Why make the 14% start at 10 units?

Why not a $ contribution for 1 unit, 2 units, etc.?

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It's just not practical or affordable. The developer isn't paying for the 14% -- it always gets passed on to the buyer/renter, which drives housing prices up.

Also, this "affordable" housing is probably not what you think it is. Per the BPDA's own website, the income cap for an individual looking to get an "affordable" 80% AMI unit (the most common type) is just over $63,000/year. That looks a lot like the starting salary of a typical recent four-year college grad -- is that the demographic that you thought needed affordable housing?

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Firstly, I didn't write that the charge for buildings with fewer units had to be 14%; it could be justifiably less but non-zero.

Secondly, because both the demand and supply curves are sloped (not flat nor vertical), both builder and seller will pay for some of the 14%. That's microeconomics 101, which can be studied both with or without math.

Thirdly, You have no idea what I think that affordable housing is or who I think needs it. I'm well aware of the AMI ranges in Boston. And yes, I do think that it's reasonable for someone who makes $63,000 to get help with paying for housing, given the incredible cost of housing in the region. It's workforce housing, and if we're going to have a middle class in our cities, they need housing too.

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.. meanwhile this has been obvious to people in East Boston for a while now.

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Meanwhile , landlords in Eastie still have 4 or 5 people, most with cars residing and cramped in a 2 bedroom apartment. thats’s the real problem, and it’s been going on for years . The city can’t handle the scale of the situation, they probably have 5 housing inspectors assigned to East Boston, in addition people living in Illegal basements undetected by the city of Boston Housing inspectional services dept.

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That seems particularly petty.

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But it's been an issue for the board for a long time now.

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Instead of playing all these games with how much "affordable" housing is or is not included and at which income levels, Boston really needs to focus on updating the zoning citywide to (a) legalize what's currently there and (b) allow for additional density. Allow the most density around neighborhood centers and transit stations. Everywhere else, allow small increases, such as ADUs or "missing middle" housing like townhouses, 4-plexes, etc. Lastly, make zoning form based so that developers and residents know what new buildings should look like. Eliminate these political games of everything needing a variance and having drawn-out negotiations that leave everyone unhappy in the end. Oh and eliminate parking minimums.

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Overly restrictive zoning allows politicians and neighborhood associations to extract concessions and money from developers, and allows political bodies to make ridiculous demands like changing the look of a garage door.

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