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Boston's Hyped Compact Living Program Has Yet To Produce A Single Unit Of Housing

In an attempt to address Boston’s growing housing crisis, Mayor Martin Walsh’s administration decided to think small.

In 2016, Boston’s Housing Innovation Lab — a Walsh initiative backed by funds from the foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — built a 385 SF, fully furnished studio apartment, hooked it up to a trailer and drove it around the city to elicit feedback from Bostonians.

The Urban Housing Unit had space-saving design features like high shelves, a hanging TV projector and a curtain to divide the sleeping area from the living area. More than 2,000 people toured the UHU, and more than two-thirds of them told city researchers they were “hesitantly optimistic” about living in the Housing iLab’s creation.

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A view of the open space in a Compact Living model unit at 141 Westville St. in Dorchester.

Two years later, the Boston Planning and Development Agency approved the framework for the Compact Living Pilot Program, allowing developers to adhere to the design principles that the city’s high-profile housing experiment had come up with.

Today, even though the BPDA claims 18 projects conforming to Compact Living guidelines have been approved, not one of them has been delivered. A handful are under construction, but all expect to deliver in 2022 or later.

Boston officials say the Compact Living Pilot was designed to help close the city’s housing gap, but since the program passed, it has only worsened, while the appetite for the small, urban apartments the program is designed to build has diminished. 

Even developers who have proposed building Compact Living units have started to doubt the program’s viability in a post-pandemic landscape. The small apartments are still expensive to build, they say, and can be complicated to finance.

“For those people stuck in small community apartments during Covid, it was a very difficult experience because you get claustrophobic,” said Mount Vernon Co. founder Bruce Percelay, a local developer who is consulting on a 149-unit compact living development in Allston that was approved by the BPDA in May. “The pendulum shifted very quickly from the market demanding small units to the market demanding larger units.”

A combined 1,651 Compact Living units across 18 projects have been approved by the BPDA, according to an agency spokesperson. Five of those projects have begun construction, combining for 674 compact units — 617 of which only began construction this spring.

The Zoning Board of Appeals has rejected the zoning changes needed for the development of approximately 72 others, throwing into question how much support the program has across city government.

ZBA members, in rejecting an application for a Compact Living development in February, questioned whether they would even be viable as many people have gravitated to larger living spaces. They have also expressed doubt that the projects fulfill a core tenet of the program: providing cheaper housing.

“There has not been any analysis that has been done that says (rents are) 2% lower or 20% lower,” ZBA Chairwoman Christine Araujosaid during a Zoom hearing in February. “We haven’t seen any numbers of that kind that make the argument for Compact Living. In the meantime, these projects get smaller and smaller.”

The Compact Living pilot was renewed for another two years in November 2020, and the BPDA has continued to approve new proposals. It is up for renewal again at the end of next year, but by that time, Boston will have a new mayor, who will have to decide whether a program designed to encourage dense, compact apartments is viable moving forward.

“If this lifestyle didn’t work out, we’d be left with buildings that aren’t structurally configured to do much,” Allston Civic Association President Anthony D’Isidoro said. “The consequences are dire, so to speak.”

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Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

‘A Great Potential Tool’

The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which oversees the Housing iLab, conducted the survey of people who came to tour the UHU, producing a report titled What we learned from the UHU road show

“Compact living stands as a great potential tool for addressing issues of affordability,” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, it can increase the degree of housing freedom an interested household and developer has to operate with.”

Approximately 2% to 3% of residents who viewed the UHU said Compact Living wasn’t suitable, citing size concerns and the stigma of living in a small unit. Another 7% to 15% voiced concern over affordability and feasibility. But the majority of residents who toured the UHU responded to the unit favorably, saying they would be willing to live in a similar compact space. 

The city handed the reins of the Compact Living Pilot to its new Housing Innovation Lab, formed in 2015 with a $1.35M Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Team Grant. The iLab concluded Compact Living could be a solution to increase affordability and give developers leeway to build more density. 

Boston approved the Compact Living Pilot in 2018, with the guidelines stipulating studios no larger than 450 SF, one-bedroom units capped at 625 SF, two-bedrooms at 850 SF and three-bedrooms at 950 SF. Projects would also have to submit to Article 80 Review, a more arduous process meant for projects larger than 50K SF.

The guidelines prioritize functional design, storage capabilities, natural light and larger shared community spaces in buildings, according to a 2020 version of the Compact Living guidelines. Compact Living Pilot Program projects would also need to minimize car usage, discourage street-level parking and encourage bike use and public transportation.

The units were designed to attract retirees and empty nesters, growing families and young professionals, according to the Compact Living Pilot Program’s website. The small units aim to fill the gap between the number of single people and couples in Boston — who comprise two-thirds of the city’s population — and the number of studio and one-bedroom apartments, which make up the city’s housing stock. 

“I think that we really see Compact as part of a much larger puzzle, or you can kind of use the toolkit metaphor,” Taylor Cain, who was hired as iLab director in 2019, said in an interview. “So really thinking about how we provide a greater density of housing types in the city and compact being one pathway, but then there are many others that we recognize.”

In October 2018, the BPDA approved the pilot, providing a framework — and, in theory, greater certainty of approval — for developers to build within. Developers, largely smaller and locally based, began filing proposals, and the BPDA approved seven compact living proposals within the pilot’s first year. 

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A rendering of 141 Westville St. in Dorchester, which won't include any parking spaces.

Early Stages

One of those first seven proposals came from Vivian Girard and his wife, Elise. Elise Girard is a baker, and the couple also co-owns home.stead bakery & cafe in Dorchester’s Fields Corner neighborhood. Vivian Girard hails from Southern France, where he was a dairy farmer before immigrating to Minnesota, eventually settling in Dorchester more than 20 years ago as a general contractor.

Inspired by the program, the couple pitched a Compact Living building at 141 Westville, a 3K SF plot they purchased in 2017 for $95K. Working with architect and neighbor Jessica West, the development team is approved to build 14 units that average 260 SF units and rents between $650 and $850

The Girards built a model Compact Living unit on the vacant plot, allowing residents to tour it, similar to the UHU. The micro-unit includes a walk-in closet, a compact kitchen and 180 SF of “open space,” according to the project’s website. 

“I was actually looking at the UMass Boston website, their normal dorm rooms are 160-180 SF for young adults,” Vivian Girard said. “When compared to a modular house, yes it’s small, but depending on your frame of reference, it’s not necessarily that small.”

Girard said he called on his own experience living in Europe when designing the project, which won’t include parking spaces as an attempt to limit traffic, reduce emissions and encourage public transit in the spirit of the Compact Living guidelines.

“I haven’t had a car in a long time, so I want it to be easy to get around the city,” Girard said. “And I’m also very much into energy efficiency, that kind of thing. I’m kind of a geek about this. So I tried to combine all of it together.”

Girard said backfill work is underway this week, but the self-funded project has yet to start vertical construction. 

Only two projects building to Compact Living standards are going vertical: 1252-1270 Boylston St., a 451-unit building in Fenway by Scape America, the U.S. affiliate of a British student living developer, which started construction in April; and 47-55 LaGrange St., a 21-story residential tower in Chinatown from New York-based Fortis Property Group. That tower, expected to be completed in Q2 2022, will have 176 apartments, 11 of which will be built to Compact Living standards. 

None of the projects under construction expect to be ready for occupancy this year. 

Local developer Diarmaid McGregor said he has just begun construction work for 1301 Wellington, a 19-unit building he is building in Mattapan expected to deliver next spring. Adam Burns, owner of Boston-based Burns Realty & Investments, said a foundation has been completed at his 19-unit project at 142-144 Old Colony Ave., which he expects to be ready for move-ins next summer. 

Samuels & Associates received a building permit in December for its massive 488-unit Dot Block at 1205 Dorchester Ave. and has since started construction on the project, which includes 127 Compact Living units, a Samuels spokesperson confirmed. 

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Scape North America secured a $165M construction loan to break ground on a 226K SF mixed-use project.

‘Let’s Not Kid Ourselves, These Are Very Small’

The BPDA approved six Compact Living proposals in the second half of 2020, but after the coronavirus pandemic upended city life, ZBA members began to sour on the small units. 

Boston-based Anchor Line Partners got BPDA approval in August for 449 Cambridge St., a 166-unit residential complex in Allston, where 72 of the apartments would conform to Compact Living guidelines, with studios between 300 and 350 SF and combined shared space of 11K SF.

But in February, the ZBA denied Anchor Line’s request for zoning relief in a 3-3 vote, claiming the project was too small for residents anticipated to spend more time at home. Araujo, the ZBA’s chair, expressed doubt over the project bringing what she described as more density and overdevelopment to Allston. Even the members who voted for it expressed reservations.

“I’m going to make a motion that in some ways is a little hard to stomach, but I’m going to make a motion for approval,” ZBA member Mark Erlich said. “There is a Compact Living policy in the city, and if we are going to adhere to that, then whatever my personal feelings may be, this is within those parameters … I understand the city is encouraging that, but let’s not kid ourselves. These are very small units.”

D’Isidoro, who leads the Allston Civic Association, where eight Compact Living projects have been proposed, told Bisnow that Anchor Line plans to return to the ZBA with a proposal without Compact Living. Anchor Line will present undisclosed, updated plans to the ZBA on July 27, according to the city. The developer didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Even when approving the rezoning request for Partners Properties’ 349-unit Allston Green Compact living project in a 6-1 vote last month — the BPDA approved it in December — members of the ZBA expressed doubts about the pilot during their deliberations. 

“And in the age of Covid, did you not look at the mental health being stuck in a 352 SF space?” Araujo asked a representative for Allston Green, who responded that only two studios were that small.

Cain, who took over the iLab after earning a doctorate in sociology from Boston University in 2019, said her team works closely with the city’s planning bodies and attributed the lack of cohesion on Compact Living from developers, planners and the community to a “constant, ongoing learning process.”

She admitted her office has minimal rent data to show for the pilot, given most of the projected rents for projects that have broken ground have yet to be determined.

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A rendering of the Allston Green Compact Living project by Partners Properties.

‘It’s Not The Most Economical Way Of Building’

Partners Properties, after winning ZBA’s stamp of approval last month, now faces the task of financing construction of the $100M-plus Allston Green, Partners President Margarita Kvacheva told Bisnow. It could be a challenge: While the size of the apartments is small, the most expensive things to build must still be included, such as kitchens, bathrooms and HVAC systems.

“Our construction costs are through the roof on this project,” Kvacheva said. "It’s not the most economical way of building.”

Vivian Girard didn’t say how much he expects his 141 Westville project to cost, but he described foundation work, utilities, excavation, planning and architect fees as half of the project’s costs — the same no matter how small the units are.

Anchor Line estimated in its proposal that 449 Cambridge St. would cost $55M to build, while Samuels’ Dot Block has a $200M price tag. Scape in November secured a $165M construction loan to break ground at 1252-1270 Boylston St.

Percelay said the subtractions made in compact construction include reduced flooring and sheet rock, among the least expensive material costs. The longtime Boston developer said Boston’s already-low margins in multifamily construction aren’t helping; multifamily construction costs have risen 25% to 30% in the past year, according to CoStar data.

“While the rents decline significantly, the costs don’t,” Percelay said. “Therefore, from a developer’s perspective, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense.”

Two of the Compact Living projects the BPDA has approved have changed their plans regarding the size and number of Compact Living units in their buildings. 

At Allston Square, a 344-unit residential complex proposed by City Realty, the BPDA claims 88 Compact Living units are expected. But the developer has filed two notices of project changes, one in November, another in May — both approved by the BPDA — that make no mention of Compact Living and outline only seven micro-units across the entire complex. City Realty didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Anchor Line was approved for 72 units, according to the BPDA’s list, but the number of Compact Living units proposed in the project has been inconsistent throughout its regulatory journey. The BPDA in August, when announcing the project’s approval, described it as including 10 compact units, while an attorney for Anchor Line told the ZBA in February that 58% of the project, or 93 units, would be Compact Living.

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Mount Vernon Co. founder and Chairman Bruce Percelay

A Sorely Needed Solution

In the years since Compact Living Pilot’s approval, Boston’s housing crisis has only worsened.

The city’s apartment vacancy rate declined to 2.9% before the pandemic, driving record housing prices and some of the highest rents in the country, according to a 2021 report by the Greater Boston Foundation. As its population has grown, the region has lagged behind its peer cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C., in the construction of new housing. 

Boston’s economy has blossomed in the past decade, and its population rose 12.1%, but its annual housing production was approximately half the rate the city saw in the 1980s, according to the GBF report. In 2017, approximately three new housing units were permitted for every 1,000 residents in the Boston metropolitan area, 18th among the nation’s 25 largest metros, the GBF found.

Approximately half of Boston renters were rent-burdened before the pandemic, according to Apartment List. Renters make up nearly 64% of Boston’s population, meaning there are roughly 338,000 Bostonians who pay 30% or more of their income for rent, according to one housing expert.  

While a feared wave of evictions hasn’t yet come to fruition amid a national moratorium, tens of thousands of Massachusetts residents are wary of being displaced, the Associated Press reported. Boston’s homeless census this year also recorded a slight bump in the unsheltered population.

Walsh introduced his Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030 initiative in 2014, with the goal of producing 53,000 additional housing units by 2030 to address the city's widening housing gap.

Four years later, the Walsh administration claimed it was hitting its goal, but Boston’s population was still outpacing the production of housing. It increased its goal of new housing by 11,000 units. The city says it permitted 3,304 new housing units last year and the mayor’s office cited the Compact Living program as a key cog in those efforts.

But D’Isidoro said at least one proposal to build Compact Living in Allston has gone back to the drawing board after lukewarm reception during a presentation to the ACA. He said he and members of the ACA remain skeptical of Compact Living as a solution for Boston’s housing woes because of its density.

“Because of the virus, going forward, people want some workspace, they don’t want to sit in their bedrooms and have a laptop on their lap,” D’Isidoro said. “They want to have a little area that they want to set up as an office. They want a little bit larger kitchens, more people eating at home, porches, open space.”

Whether future Compact Living projects win approval will hinge on more shared community and open space, experts told Bisnow. Partners’ Allston Green project included 25K SF of publicly accessible open space, including a park, and 10K SF of community space within the building. Kvacheva attributes the open spaces as selling points for the skeptical ZBA members.

“I think the kind of creative spirit of the Compact guidelines is actually really well-suited to helping us think about our future needs,” Cain said. “It involves housing, this importance of flexibility, this importance of natural light and the arrangement of spaces, and the access to places to gather with people, whether that's inside or outside.”

The iLab director said her office will pay close attention to the rents for the first Compact Living units expected to deliver next year, which will inform whether the city renews the program next year. Percelay, who is actively working on a Compact Living development, said its future is in doubt regardless.

“Whether it’s renewed or not, I don’t think it solves the problem it was intended to solve,” Percelay said.