Boston Housing and Deeper Learning (Part One of Two)

1/14/18

As I’m driving from neighborhood to neighborhood these days, I’ve been reflecting on The Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2017. The report chronicles the disjuncture between the Boston area’s current housing stock and our actual needs as a metropolitan community. I think this subject relates to the work we do at Gann in at least two ways; accordingly, I’m going to offer some thoughts both this week and in next week’s “Sunday Update.”

Almost all of us experience this misalignment within the housing sector, thanks to the high prices we pay to rent or own residential property in the greater Boston area. But identifying scarcity is only the first step at analyzing a very complicated issue. The report points out, for example, that

How we structure our local governance matters. Given that we organize ourselves substantially by town or city, our “political map” is a rather decentralized patchwork of zoning laws, school districts, and regulatory environments. Metro-wide action can therefore be a real challenge here in Massachusetts, unlike many other states that either have larger municipalities (in terms of geographic boundaries) or stronger governance at the county level (vs. towns).

Boston area Town Map

Image Source: Boston MPO

The kind of housing we build must be attuned to today’s social reality. Neither triple-deckers nor single family dwellings match today’s needs.

Triple Decker

Image Source: New England Historical Society

To wit:

The first demographic revolution brought families to the cities; the second brought them—at least white families—to the suburbs. But the third demographic revolution underway for at least the past two decades nationwide is less about the spatial distribution of the population and more about the structure of households … As of 2015, only slightly more than half of all households in Plymouth, Norfolk and Middlesex counties are composed of families with a married couple, and less than half in Essex County. In Suffolk County—essentially the City of Boston—only about 28 percent of all housing units are now occupied by a family with a married couple. The other 70 percent plus are occupied by either a single person or two or more unrelated roommates. And in each of the counties, at least 25 percent of all housing units have only a single occupant. In Suffolk County, more than one out of three units (36.3%) now house a single person.

  • Report Card 2017, p. 58

Clearly, anyone who is invested in the future of the Boston metro area needs to think creatively on how to cooperate across political boundaries to promote housing development that aligns with today’s Boston-area demographics. Simple, eh?

A large part of this challenge resonates and thrills me as an educator. This sort of research and design relates directly to Gann’s core values of strive and create. We want to prepare our students, when faced with this sort of contemporary problem, to

  • ask the right questions
  • seek multidisciplinary information
  • ideate collaboratively and creatively
  • iterate solutions

This challenge, in other words, speaks directly to the skill-building that we seek via our mastery learning initiative and the interdisciplinary projects that we dream of pursuing through our new hub/lab space (entering its final design phase this spring, by the way!).

Furthermore, I would argue that a topic like Boston-area housing is exactly a subject to which we can bring the creative energy of our students, not only in readiness but in action. Our learners are citizens of the Commonwealth – and they should be participating! When given the right tools and resources, they should be entering the public forum, debating ideas, and traveling down the road toward innovative solutions.

My point is not to privilege housing as a topic for Gann students, but rather to hold it up as an example of what is possible. Of course, there is much more to the recipe of entrepreneurship than creativity, collaboration, and ideation/iteration – but more on that next week.