Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data showing that Suffolk County is among only a handful of large counties nationwide where housing growth since 2010 is outpacing pre-recession growth. Despite this growth, the state still faces enormous housing challenges in part because of limited growth in other areas of the state, particularly when compared to the rate of growth before the 2008 recession. These updated 2017 county-level housing unit estimates underscore the urgency of addressing the region’s housing crisis.
Communities in the Greater Boston region are not producing enough housing to meet demand. The combination of slowed production following the 2008 recession and the influx of new residents means the state is struggling to address the housing needs of both new residents and those already living here.
This tension is clearly illustrated in Suffolk County. Over the past seven years, the number of residents in Suffolk County has grown by 10 percent – or an estimated 72,541 new residents – reaching a total of almost 800,000 residents. Even with thousands of new units being built, Suffolk County only produced one new housing unit per 3.5 new residents. By contrast, the average household size in Suffolk County is 2.4 people (ACS 5-Year Estimates, 2012-2016).
Outside of Suffolk County, the discrepancy between housing production and population growth was even wider. For example, in Essex County, where the average household size is 2.61 people there were 6.28 new residents per new unit of housing – meaning there are nearly three households competing for a single new unit of housing (ACS 5-Year Estimates, 2012-2016). Berkshire and Franklin Counties in western Massachusetts have lost population since 2010, despite adding more housing.
Use the “Select Measures” drop-down menu within the dashboard to explore the data. The dashboard provides insights into housing production, population growth, and the ratio of new housing units to new residents. The map and the bar graph in the upper right-hand corner both reflect the data from the measure selected from the drop-down menu. The bar graph in the lower right-hand corner displays the 2016 average household size. For additional context and further explanation of the data measures, see the notes section directly beneath the dashboard.
Strikingly, the data shows that housing production in much of the state has not recovered from the 2008 recession. Suffolk County was the only county in Massachusetts where housing construction between 2010 and 2017 outpaced construction between 2000 and 2007.
In fact, Suffolk County was one of only 10 counties nationwide with a population greater than 500,000 residents to have a greater housing unit growth rate from 2010 to 2017 compared to 2000 to 2007. Between 2010 and 2017, Suffolk County added more than 20,500 new housing units bringing its total to 336,205 units. This amounts to a growth rate of 6.5 percent over the last seven years, doubling the rate of almost every surrounding county in the Greater Boston region.
On the other hand, throughout the Commonwealth, housing growth rates have slowed. Between 2010 and 2017, housing growth in the Cape and Islands (Barnstable, Nantucket, and Dukes Counties), Worcester County and Plymouth County was at least five-percentage points slower than it was in the years leading up to the Great Recession.
Housing production is a regional problem: Suffolk County – and Boston especially – cannot solve it single-handedly. A lack of housing production in the Boston suburbs is problematic for employers across the region. To remain competitive, the greater Boston economy requires additional housing production to provide our growing workforce with attractive and affordable housing options.
The urgent need for housing production in the region – not just in Suffolk County – is one reason the Chamber supports H.4290, An Act to Promote Housing Choices filed by Governor Baker. The Governor’s proposed legislation supports additional housing production by allowing municipalities to adopt certain zoning changes that promote best practices with a simple majority rather than the two-thirds majority currently required. The legislation facilitates the production of much-needed housing while maintaining a balance with existing municipal authority. Municipalities will be able to expand their housing supply while continuing to play an important role in defining their community’s character. Passage of H.4290 would be the first significant change to state zoning regulations in decades, and is an important first step in addressing our state’s housing problem.