“Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another? (Updated)

Rezoning is in the news again in Newton. I have deliberately avoided most of the coverage. Developer kingpins aided by pliant politicians and high-density CODS housing activists and their southside allies on the City Council always seem to get what they want around here. Local elections are undermined by millions in developer-funded PR campaigns and outright cash injections to pro-development activist groups, while local residents protesting the luxury developments are ignored, demonized, and even publicly bullied by a southside city councilor, Brenda Noel (Ward 6).

After the dust settles, we’re inevitably left with thousands of units of luxury housing that do nothing to bring down housing costs in the city of Newton.

Hundreds of luxury apartments have already been thrown up in Newtonville. They include 28 Austin Street, the parcel across from the Newtonville Star Market which the former mayor and city councilors agreed to lease to the developer for just $1,050,000 for 99 years, over the protests of Newtonville residents. The 28 Austin Street website now boasts “luxury boutique living,” starting at $3,700 to rent a 1,050 square feet apartment:

28 Austin Street Newtonville apartment price

(2021 Update: Meryl Kessler, the spouse of the developer behind 28 Austin Street, is running for Newton’s Ward 3 councilor-at-large seat, currently occupied by Andrea Kelley and Pam Wright. Kessler’s platform includes “revitalizing Newton’s village centers”)

Across the Pike, developer Mark Development didn’t have to rip up a signed agreement with neighbors and local councillors like it did for Riverside. Instead, the former mayor and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce helped get him what it demanded, again over the objections of neighbors:

“This is terrible news for Newton and Newtonville. Robert Korff had proposed a thoughtful project that would have addressed a desperate need for workforce housing, generated foot traffic for our village businesses and provided wonderful community give backs,” said President of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber Greg Reibman in a statement to the TAB. “But no thanks to an obstructionist political group and a few city councilors, Newtonville might end up with a building that is even taller than the proposed five stories and without a public art space, shops, bike and sidewalk improvements, or any of the other amenities Robert had offered.”

“Workforce housing?” What a joke. Mark Development of course ended getting what it wanted, which was 3/4 luxury rentals that no ordinary workers or middle class people can afford.

This piece of commentary in the local newspaper summed up what everyone now knows: Dumping thousands of units of luxury housing is a tool of wealth creation for developers. It does nothing to reduce housing costs in Newton:

The belief that more housing will add affordability for Newton is a false premise as well. A look at Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, South Boston, East Boston, Charlestown, Waltham, Watertown tells us all we need to know: large developments drive up land prices, drive up rents and make naturally affordable housing less available and less affordable. It creates a tiered class with subsidized housing for those who qualify, and expensive housing for everyone else. These are the facts and wishful thinking doesn’t change this reality.

Here are the facts concerning the former Orr block. The low-cost apartments and small businesses on Washington Street in Newtonville were quickly demolished to make way for Mark’s new replacement for the Orr block, Trio Newton. The work is wrapping up now. Have housing prices dropped as high-density housing activists have promised, because hundreds of new units are now being added to the supply?

No! If anything, it’s gotten more expensive to live in Newtonville. The facts are in the numbers. On Google, Trio promotes “luxury apartments in Newton.” Click through to the Trio website, where the least expensive option is apparently $2,600 per month to rent a 600 square foot studio!

Good luck if you’re a senior on a fixed income, a new immigrant, disabled, or a young person who grew up in Newton and wants to move back to your home town. Using the 30% rule of thumb for housing costs, excluding utility costs, and generously assuming Mark Development isn’t stacking additional fees on top of the listed rental prices at Trio Newton, you would need an annual income of $104,000 to afford the least expensive studio apartment.

At nearby 28 Austin Street, a young family would need an income of at least $144,000 to rent the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment (1,050 square feet). The most expensive (1,365 square feet) 2 bedroom unit, at $7,500 per month, would require an annual income of $300,000.

Note that the median household income in Massachusetts is $77,378, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The development battle has now turned to single-family housing. The mayor, city planners, developers, and some city councilors want to abolish single-family housing, by “upzoning” wide swathes of neighborhoods currently filled with existing single-family homes and convert them to luxury condos and townhouses by right.

It will happen in Newton Corner. The Lake. Newtonville. West Newton. Auburndale. Newton Lower Falls. Newton Upper Falls. And so on.

If you thought the first wave of Newton tear-downs that eviscerated the stock of older, small single-family homes in the city was bad, wait until the new plan gets underway. Don’t think for a second that the vast majority of multifamily units under such a scheme would be built for anyone other than those who can afford, as 28 Austin puts it, “luxury boutique living.” The remaining working class and middle class households in the city of Newton will be pushed out, while the developer class will be left laughing all the way to the bank.

The Newton Villages Alliance got things right in its latest newsletter, noting:

The proposed overhaul of Newton’s zoning code for higher density will lead to a transformation of Newton to a much more expensive, congested, urban environment. In the process, well-financed property speculators will be the winners and existing residents the losers as investment capital pours into our community for the sole purpose of extracting as much profit as possible.

For a taste of what’s to come, check out this video which chronicles the failure of upzoning in Austin.


8 thoughts on ““Upzoning” in Newton: A tool to turn over the city from one class of people to another? (Updated)

  1. I couldn’t agree more. They also think that this helps the world by reducing pollution etc., while the only solution is telecommuting.

  2. Bravo!
    Straight to the point.
    Cuts through the wide and dense swathe of well-funded propaganda being spewed by developers and their sycophants.
    Where’s the follow button?

    • Thanks Pat! Hard for the high-density housing activists to argue with the prices printed on Korff’s own websites. He and his political friends are making housing in Newton more expensive and exclusionary.

  3. I’ve seen some of the comments by city councilors on the proposed zoning. They include Alicia Bowman’s 9/11/20 memo to the Zoning & Planning Committee giving developers exactly what they want to build more luxury condos and townhouses on every street in the city (“Two units by right is a good way to increase housing availability, gives home owners more flexibility in how they manage their homes and is equitable across the city”) to Pam Wright’s sober assessment (“I believe version 3 [of the proposed zoning ordinance] as written will just bring in more luxury housing with an accelerant rate of tear downs AND, for some smaller lots, even larger homes than that can be built today.”)

  4. It started on Court Street with the Englers’ 36 unit condo that replaced already existing affordable apartments.

  5. Thank you Ian! I really appreciate your well researched and thought out opinions on development. Every time I write to the City Council to express concern, I inevitably get the condescending response that I don’t know what I’m talking about by the development zealots. Their argument is always, ‘more affordable units are worth the price of dense urbanization’. Sadly, my husband and I have realized we’ll probably have to leave Newton as a result. It’s just not what we signed up for when we purchased a home here 20 years ago.

  6. Unintended consequences of Minneapolis’s super-hyped upzoning:

    “The policy took as its starting point that more units automatically equals more affordability, and there wasn’t any interest in delving into whether or not that was actually a factual equation on which to base major decisions. The policy does not cite any research to support its assertion, nor does it even lay out any aspirational goals regarding the extent of the impact they hope to achieve (such as in anticipated added units, or even in theoretical decreases to housing costs). Without any sort of concrete metric, it is impossible to analyze the policy’s effectiveness in achieving its goal of improved housing affordability. That is convenient when what one is proposing is a vague, one-size-fits-all solution with no real statistical support linking it to its presupposed conclusion.”


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