SALEM — Multifamily projects built around North Shore commuter rail stations could help alleviate Greater Boston's affordable housing crunch, housing advocates told Congressman Seth Moulton on Monday.
The Boston Foundation's 16th Greater Boston Housing Report Card points out that multifamily housing developments tend to be concentrated around the MBTA's subway stations rather than around commuter rail stops, where stations are typically near single-family homes or no housing at all.
"One of the key tie-ins to the work that we have been doing in this office is the connection between housing and transportation," Moulton said, "which is something that I've talked about a lot, that part of the solution to the housing crisis in downtown Boston isn't just building more housing in downtown Boston but improving the rail infrastructure so you can live easily in a place like Salem or Lynn and commute to work in downtown Boston."
Moulton, a Salem Democrat and advocate for public transportation and rail travel, met Monday with Harborlight Community Partners Executive Director Andrew DeFranza, Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance Executive Director Andre Leroux, and Tracy Corley, transit-oriented development fellow at MassINC, a nonpartisan public policy think tank, to talk about transit-oriented development.
DeFranza, who oversees the Beverly nonprofit affordable housing agency, said the group discussed at length "the need for public infrastructure investment in transit to be matched by public participation in housing."
"I think we are seeing it in some communities like Beverly," DeFranza said about the spate of new apartment buildings that have been built around the Beverly Depot, "and I think Salem would be one where they are open to that, to seeing more of that happen. I think Mayor (Kim) Driscoll will be eager for that."
Last week, Driscoll addressed Salem's housing crisis and the need for more affordable housing in the city. To meet the need, Driscoll expressed support for Gov. Charlie Baker's Housing Choice bill, the loosening of restrictions on the creation of in-law apartments, inclusionary zoning, historic reuse, and the creation of more public housing.
"I think in Gloucester, you could see it. It would be a possibility. I think where there is a challenge is in the locations where there is not already existing multifamily density near the trains," DeFranza said. Some Beverly commuter rail stations face similar challenges.
"Swampscott is an interesting example," Moulton said, noting that the seaside town's train station is just a two-minute ride to Lynn's.
"There's nothing there, right around the train station, it's just single-family homes and nothing else," Moulton said.
DeFranza asked what might happen if commuter rail stations all along the Newburyport/Rockport line were allowed to have a multifamily designation within a half-mile radius. That might spur development, he said.
"And, what a great example the governor could set in Swampscott," Moulton said, then quipping, "I'm not sure he knows there is a train station right near his house because I've never seen him take it, nor heard of him taking it." Baker has come under criticism from some for not riding the T amid its continued woes.
DeFranza and Moulton said it's ironic that development is taking shape around the Lynn station but not in Swampscott.
Commuter rail expansion?
Corley said there is wider discussion among state transportation officials about the vision of the existing commuter rail, which was designed to shuttle people to and from 9-to-5 jobs in downtown Boston. There is talk of increasing the frequency of trains and having all-day service. To justify the expansion, she said, it would make sense to add both housing and jobs near commuter rail stations.
While denser development around the Swampscott station might cause some consternation in town, Moulton said it might also provide opportunity.
"All of the people who are living in single-family homes in that area would now be able to walk to restaurants and grocery stores that are right near the train station," he said, "and there will be more tax base so that we don't have to put as much burden on residential tax rates just to fund the town government."
The group also pointed to Newburyport's commuter rail station as a failed example of transit-oriented development.
"They built a train station out in the middle of nowhere with nothing but parking around it. You literally can't walk to anything from the train station," said Moulton. The signal given to riders here is "you have to be wealthy enough to own a car," he said.
Moulton said Washington, D.C., could help by funding "smart growth" over "dumb growth," making it easier to expand modern transit systems instead of building more highways.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.