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Former Boston City Councilor Launches Housing Nonprofit

Housing Forward-MA Executive Director Josh Zakim

After witnessing Boston’s heated battles over affordable housing firsthand, former Boston City Councilor Josh Zakim has formed a nonprofit called Housing Forward-MA to help find solutions to this oft-vexing challenge.

Housing Forward will focus on breaking down zoning barriers that impede the construction of affordable multifamily housing in the state, Zakim told Bisnow in an interview Thursday. It will also train activists on how to advocate for the issues effectively, said Zakim, who decided last year not to seek re-election after serving six years.

Like in most cities, affordable housing has long been a sore subject in Boston because of neighbors’ concerns that new development will adversely affect their quality of life and property values. Residents of Jamaica Plain and Audubon Circle are opposing projects to add more housing. In September, the Framingham City Council unanimously overrode Mayor Yvonne Spicer’s veto of a nine-month moratorium on all multifamily development in the Boston suburb.

“We are going to be providing and looking for research-backed policy solutions that will increase housing production,” Zakim said. “It seems that most of the data and research out there shows there is lack of production, artificial obstacles like [a] long permitting process and arcane zoning issues.”

A neighbor of a proposed low-cost housing project by the nonprofit Pine Street filed a lawsuit in August, challenging the city’s zoning approval for the development, arguing that it is too big and lacks sufficient parking.

U.K.-based developer Scape is facing similar concerns in Audubon Circle for its development at 819 Beacon St. The neighborhood group claims the project would overwhelm the surrounding rowhomes because of its size.

Zakim backs Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice proposal pending before the state legislature, which would allow local governments in the state to change zoning and other special permits to pass with a simple majority as opposed to the two-thirds support currently required.

“In many cases, that back-and-forth is good,” said Zakim, who declined to comment on any specific developments. One of the challenges, he said, is that we often hear only one side. 

“There have been studies — I think [Boston University] did one last year — showing that the demographics of folks who show up to many of these meetings for a host of reasons generally skew older, wealthier and whiter than the general population or even the neighborhood at issue,” Zakim said. 

Furthermore, even Boston's affordable housing is not cheap by national standards. According to Apartment List, the median two-bedroom rent is $1,928. Zakim said getting housing prices down will require communities to allow the types of high-density projects that many people currently oppose. 

Housing Forward is currently being funded by its board members, Chestnut Hill Realtors CEO Ed Zuker and housing policy experts Barry Bluestone and Eleanor White, according to the Boston Globe, which first reported the nonprofit’s launch.

Related Topics: Josh Zakim