OP-ED: As Housing Costs Push Younger Workers Out, Watertown Could Lead Battle to Deal with Crisis

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Linda Scott The Elan Union Market apartment building on Arsenal Street.

By Mark Pickering

The bad news about the housing market in Massachusetts keeps piling in. “More 25- to 44-year-olds are leaving the state than any other groups,” concludes a new report. The top culprit: Housing costs are too high.

The good news for Watertown: People from a range of incomes want to move here. But the City needs more housing to accommodate them. In particular, Watertown needs more affordable housing.

The new report from the Boston Foundation says too many of the state’s younger adults are voting with their feet. On balance, young people are the ones losing out the most as rents and housing prices skyrocket. That’s true both here in Watertown and around the state. These young people are also the workers who will drive the state’s economy as others age and retire.

As a front-page Boston Globe headline put it: “Tomorrow’s Workforce Kissing Mass. Goodbye: Spiraling housing costs are fueling an exodus as the population grays.”

At the root of the housing problem is that exclusionary zoning, particularly in the Massachusetts suburbs, has curbed new construction to such a high degree. Zoning rules have been created at the local level, while nobody has taken charge of the big picture planning for the state and its economic future.

The state’s new MBTA Communities Act changes that, to some degree. It requires communities to set aside a portion of their land where developers have the right to construct new housing that exceeds current zoning.

Plans afoot to redesign Watertown Square give our city’s residents a chance to tackle a portion of the housing supply crisis while fulfilling the requirements of the new state law. The City’s statistics conclude that, since 2016, 1,183 housing units have been built or are “in the pipeline” in the Watertown Square study area.” Of these, only 148 were considered “affordable.” Just 28 are condos. Most of the apartments are studios or one- and two-bedroom units.

A diagram of the proposed by-right housing zoning in Watertown Square to meet the MBTA Communities Law requirement. The by-right areas are outlined in a dark dashed line. (Courtesy of City of Watertown)

The city “encourages” developers to include three-bedroom units, said Steven Magoon, Watertown’s director of development. For the most part, that’s not what gets built, however.

The grass-roots group Housing For All Watertown labeled the City’s affordability program as “weak.” (On the plus side, Watertown mandates that 15 percent of the housing units in a development project.)

In a Watertown News op-ed, the housing group’s leaders called for more action, beyond what the Massachusetts MBTA Communities Act requires. The op-ed calls for providing incentives to get more affordable housing built. That would mean developers could build more units and taller buildings.

Watertown Square is a great place for large new buildings that would provide needed
housing. And the square has a good number of five- and even eight-story buildings already.

The new state law requires Watertown to meet certain benchmarks. That includes making a zoning plan that allows developers to build at least 1,701 multifamily housing units.

That won’t, however, mean that the housing will actually be built. Just that it might be. On the other hand, the City has a track record of accommodating new residents. From 2013 to 2014, Watertown was the state’s fastest-growing community, increasing in population by 3 percent. The Boston Globe reported that population gains in the eastern part of the state came after more housing got built.

The City’s population was 35,329 people in the 2020 census. 

Mark Pickering is a veteran of the local news business, having worked on the business desk and the opinion pages of the Boston Herald.

(Send op-eds and letters to watertownmanews@gmail.com)

31 thoughts on “OP-ED: As Housing Costs Push Younger Workers Out, Watertown Could Lead Battle to Deal with Crisis

  1. Thank you to all the selfish NIMBY baby boomers who don’t care what they leave behind and are destroying this state. 29 year old Watertown resident here who’s moving out of town at the end of my lease because my girlfriend and I cannot afford to live here any longer on 185k combined salary. The tight knit family oriented community of Watertown will never be the same if we continue in this direction

    • Thank you for your letter Nick. I am attempting to work with banks in order to gain an understanding of the household salary ranges one would need for purchasing a home in Watertown as well as renting the new Developments. No one informs you what salary one would have make to purchase a home at $300,000, $500,000, $700,000, $900,000 and $3,000,000. I made a very decent salary working for the Federal Government when I first came to Watertown and eventually bought a home. Even at the Grade Level I possessed, I would not be able to purchase a home in Watertown.

      We say that Watertown needs affordable housing; however, there is no attempt to enact rent control in the new units being built or recently built. As to the MBTA Law, I find it interesting that the State identified an area where they felt there was an unmet need. Instead our leaders said no to the site selected. I still maintain that in comparison, for its size, no other community has done more than we have to meet housing needs. Our problem is there is no interest in compliance. Were, God forbid, a five to six story building built in the Square, by Right, how do you enforce that units are also built for children, etc. How does one enforce ALL Provisions of the Law? I can only hope that Milton wins their battle.

    • Nick, I am sorry that you feel this way. But blaming selfish boomer NIMBY’s is a sophomoric way to view the situation. It is much more complicated than that.

      There are plenty of boomers who are finding themselves also in your position. Many in their later years are being forced out. And there are families with household incomes below $185k who cannot find decent housing.

      I am a boomer and I am very concerned that young folks who work for me cannot find housing in proximity to their work and are leaving the business. Staffing has become an acute problem.

      But the story less about NIMBY’s than it is about a political and economic system that predominantly serves the interest of the upper quartile. It is about inequality and a broken political economy.

      We should also avoid minimizing the role of good old fashioned greed in examining our current predicament.

  2. Great letter. Thanks for sharing this info and your thoughts. When I think about zoning and housing I have a sense that we are building here in Watertown but that if we really want to increase housing supply to the point that it brings down prices, we need to insist that the surrounding communities also build. Concord, Wellesley, Weston, Lincoln, etc., etc. all need to build much more densely, especially walkable to Commuter Rail. The conversation about Watertown property values and rents is incomplete without bringing in the entire region.

  3. Nick, I’m sorry to hear you have to leave. We hear this a lot. We all know there ARE solutions. I hope the many many others who want our City to allow for more affordable housing will join Housing for All Watertown, or in whatever way is preferred, share their concerns and vision.
    It helps our decision makers to hear from people like you and your girlfriend. You are our future!
    Jacky vanLeeuwen
    Housing for All Watertown member

  4. Hi Nick,
    I’m perplexed. Housing is considered “affordable” when the tenant or homeowner pays no more than 30% of their gross income for housing costs. Given your stated combined income of 185K x .30 = $55,500 /12 months = $4625 per month. Are you saying you can’t find housing in Watertown at that rate?

    • regardless of how the government defines “affordable” 185k gross pay is roughly 10k a month take home pay.

      No one would consider spending 46% of their take home paycheck on rent “affordable”.

      Using gross pay to measure affordability is so detached from reality.

      • Yes and yes! Thanks, man! I looked you up to see why you had a real grasp of how buying a house works! You went to biz school, clearly! No one I know who own a house and is under the age of 50 is paying 30% . Ha! My parents were paying 28% of gross back in the day! 30% is ridiculous!!!! And if one person gets laidoff, then what????? Does it go up to 50%????????

    • Elodia,

      Sorry to say but your math is not right. No one I know who owns pay 30% of their gross income. The only people I know who ever had are had are people my parents’ age. My parents were born in 1955 and 1958. So things have changed a lot since you have applied for a mortgage. That is the stark realty.

  5. Watertown and Waltham ma were two towns where people loved to live in , they had jobs in boston and the commute wasn’t a problem so they traveled everyday and life was good until someone greedy decided to jack up everyones rent forcing people to work two jobs , was that a smart idea ? Dont think so and now the young generation is force to leave because of greedy people thinking about a quick buck Sad empty towns.

  6. I think that all this development in Watertown will make Watertown less affordable rather than more affordable. Property values in Watertown have tripled in the last 25 years I’ve lived here, and have gone up by 1/3 in the last 7 years. Many towns have voted against so called MBTA community development for one reason or another. I’m all for progress but let’s call this a money grab and I’m fine with it. I feel that to disguise development in Watertown with the aegis of “affordable housing” is disingenuous. If you believe that all this development in Watertown is for the good of the people, for affordable housing, and is altruistic in nature then boy do I have a bridge to sell you….real cheap. I’ll even take crypto.

    • This is absolutely correct. Another flaw in the MBTA Communities law is that it makes no promise of better and increased transit service to service all this new housing.

      This is where the law fails. Transit oriented development needs reliable transit that is enticing to potential riders. The MBTA Communities law ignores this necessity.

      Christopher is correct. There are many communities that have built a lot of housing and it has had no impact on rapidly rising costs. Increasingly this phenomenon is being noticed.

    • All of the experts disagree with you and the data is not on your side. This is a problem of supply and demand. Demand for housing is outpacing supply. Massachusetts is short 200,000 housing units. Where are those houses going, exactly? If we don’t build, people will simply leave for cheaper places and our economy will suffer.

      That’s why the MBTA Communities Law is important: because no one community can shoulder the burden of creating all this new housing. No single housing project will lower housing prices but in aggregate they can be lowered.

      Look at what’s going on in Minneapolis. They’ve adopted pro-housing policies and they’re seeing their rents rise at a slower rate than the rest of the country. Look it up for yourself. Here are some of the pro-housing changes that they’ve made that are credited with making an impact on housing prices: elimination of parking minimums, encouraging apartment development on commercial corridors, building height minimums on commercial corridors, and elimination of single-family zoning allowing for duplexes and triplexes to be built throughout the city. Watertown should do ALL of these things.

      • Right. I talked to my cousin who works in housingand he said that if you want rents to go down to like 2000 a month, then you will need something like 10,000 units avaialble. He works witha consortium in Worcester and these people chrunch the numbers. That is he best estimate given the researh he has read, and no it was not on the internet. These are acutally papers with tables and tables of numbers and stats. Anything less that such a number wont get down to it. After that number, rents start to fall a little more rapidly. I hope the city planners are reading the same resarch. So now the number of 6200 from February won’t help. and the 3300 from April won’t help. And forget about the compliance number of 1700. And for all the people saying no compliance, what they are really saying is I GOT MINE, and I don’t care if you are being robbed of a future or nest egg. Screw you and pay the 1.5m for a house of 3700 for rent. Yeah, I could live with 6200 but we need more than that . More! If the cityplanner really want to fix the problem, then start there. Please don’t don’t even consider aythiing less. If they do, then the cityplanners are no better than the very greedy residents who want people to pay high rents forever. Somebody doo something about this crsis. Really do something. Don’t just talk. You know if you really want the truth then go door to door, and see what percentage of the 35,000 really need you to do something, and not the selffish 600 who signed a petition. Unbelievely!

        • “if you really want the truth then go door to door,”

          If you really want the truth, I have a much better, simpler and more representative solution…

          A) At the meetings, NO option for capping the number of by right units to the required 1,701 was even offered for attendees to vote on resulting in all opinions not being fairly represented. The current plan will go before the planning board in May and then presented to the City Council in June. Both meetings will offer residents the opportunity to put forth a recommendation to do just that. Per the City Charter, this can be achieved by submitting a Citizen Petition of 150 registered voters to be certified by the City Clerk upon which the City Council has 3 months to hold a public hearing on the matter.

          B) The Watertown Sq. redesign and the MBTA Communities Act are two separate issues. The resdign will have a long lasting and permanent impact on the future of Watertown and should be left up to the voters to deride on *via a local ballot question* and not rest on the shoulders and decisions of 9 individuals… elected or not.

          If all residents are to have their voices heard and counted, then they should be addressed by a democratic process that genuinely represents all.

          • You’re right on the money, Donna. The issue needs to be resolved by voting.

          • So 1 ove to another town if you want town hallstyle representation. That is not what I want.
            I was point out that you do not repressent the majority. You don’t. i don’t either. What I suspect is thhe number is less than my 10, 00units but certainly more than your 1701. You can kinda of use the last city council election asa proxy. An d beofre you start crowingabout low turnout and this and that you should look at other election results. 2021 hd some heavy turnout, and the 1701 candidate who is now zero unit guy lost.
            The idea of 1701 units has been in talked about for two years now, maybe even more. I was in Brighton 2 years ago. Where have you been?
            The charette or which I attended one, established 1701 as the flloor and the results from all 4 groups was something like 3000 uits. That charetter was attended by someof your friends. Who are now backtracking.
            Agains the sq and Mbta community law is happening together because it is better to kill two birds with one stone. Also this has been talked about for years. The mbta law had picked a site in Watertown and Watertown chose another. So ship has sailed. Where have you been?
            Again you confuse democracy with you coming to the table late. Plus we have a representative city council. We vote them and they make decisons. Again go to another town for something more direct. I suspsect your complants about the democracy stem from your disklie of the plan and/or not having candiadte of your choice. Too bad. This is the system and we can’t alwsy get what we want. EIther back better candidates or run yourself. I alwas find it disingenous when people complain ablout process. It really means they are unhappy with the reuslt or they want to control. Worst of all, they have no argument. Sorry you are disappointed but many people in my generation and in Nick’s generation have been disappointed too.

          • And Anne Civette, if she’s on the money, then I don’t want to be in that game. My comment to Donna’s thoughts would apply to your thoughs as well. Go ahead and vote, I don’t think you magic number of 1701 will be a winning one. I already know my number of 10,000 units won’t win. I admit it. Deck is against me. The city council would have to say hey let’s do 10000 because we need to do it! Never goning happen! So what happen then? Say the people spelak and they vote for 4500 units. Do you throw out the vote? How about let’s try some honesty here. You want to throw any means up so that 1701 units become the number. Fine, you favor 170 units, but be honest about throwing spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. While you are doing that , the rest of us are going to speak up too. We are going to call for bold vision. 10000 might be too boldbut 1701 is a chickens***visions. Cowardly even. We sacrifice the furture of many so that a few can be comfortable. nope, not bold at all. FOr every action for the 1701 or zero, there will be opposite and more than equal reaction. Remeber the average age is 38, and they vote. we are not talking about 18 years herre. Even some 70 soemthings want more housing. I guess not every 70 something is as selffish as Nick A said. ANd that is a good thing.

      • Which experts? Markets are complicated. Supply and demand is only one factor. Demographics and income have a lot to do with it too as does supply and use of capital. So does the opening of a formerly local market to national developers. Closed systems vs. open systems behave differently.

        We have built more than 2000 units in Watertown in the last decade or so and still housing inflation is driving many people out.

        It is very hard to compare differing markets. Real estate prices tend to be sticky.
        Before there is enough downward market pressure to impact prices developers will stop building.

        We must ask ourselves why our economic system is not producing one of our most needed commodities–affordable housing. Simply whipping the NIMBY boogeyman will not solve anything.

        BTW, transit oriented development DOES require quality transit to be successful.

        • You can’t take a bucket of water out of a lake and then say “see, removing water from the lake doesn’t reduce the water level!” That’s how you’re treating housing prices. 2,000 units over the last decade (I’ll just trust you on that number, I haven’t validated) yet STILL the state as a whole is 200,000 units short. All you’re proving is that our rate of housing production has been is still FAR too slow. Maybe all this tight, overly restrictive local control is the problem and not the solution

          What experts? Well let’s start with the example I gave from Minneapolis. I’ll cite the paper but this quote states the basic conclusion: “These findings are in line with a robust body of research showing that jurisdictions that expand their housing supply experience slower housing cost growth than those that do not.”


          It’s not hard at all to find other similar papers

          • I agree Scott. I feel they know the answer is more housing units are needed in order to bring the rents and prices down. They do not care for that answer, and it is demonstrated in their responses.

  7. Anything or anyone that stands in the way of building more housing is like an anchor dragging our state’s economy downward. We can not allow NIMBY arguments about traffic, drain on city services, ugly buildings, wishing landlords would reduce rents, etc. to obscure the main point: Massachusetts is in a housing EMERGENCY now precisely because those arguments reigned in the past. They provided the “rationale” for cities and towns to veto new housing near where they live. We can no longer afford that.

    • In other words, anyone who insists on quality development is a NYMBY undermining all that is good? Nonsense.

      This is a naively simplistic argument that seeks to undermine good design and planning and thus our community. The situation is much more complicated than the usual whine about NIMBYs.

      Being a propagandist for developers is not a solution. Building high end housing will do nothing in any reasonable time frame to impact affordability. The problem runs much deeper and we must examine it in its complexity.

      Developers, as a rule these days, are self interested and not invested in our community. The are invested in maximizing their own returns. That is why community oversight is so important. It is a matter of checks and balances that keep self interest from undermining the community as a whole.

      • I don’t buy this at all. You’ve really just pulling pages out of the NIMBY playbook: demonize developers, call supporters of housing propagandists, and gate-keep “good design and planning” and “quality development”. What’s “good design and planning” exactly? Let me guess… you’ll find something wrong with every single proposal or things will move at such a glacial pace that development is effectively stopped.

        I hear a lot of doom and gloom from the NIMBYs but no actual solutions. Instead of insulting people by calling them propagandists for wanting housing, how about you come up with your own concrete proposals. I’m all ears, I’ve read all the comments and op-eds over the past year or so and NIMBYs never have anything interesting to say, it’s just a lot of fear mongering and assertions.

        This “community oversight” you insist we need is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. Your use of “community oversight” has historically meant “NIMBYs showing up to object new development”. Frankly, I think the lack of housing of all types is undermining the community far more than these “greedy developers” that you constantly bemoan.

        • Community oversight is simply a component of democracy and the the right of citizens. You’re opposed to that? Democracy, that is.

          You are grossly misrepresenting my position and that of many of your neighbors. Talk about a playbook! For the umpteeth time, few are against all development, but rather many wish for sensible development that is better than what we have gotten in the past.

          You talk about name calling, but what I am reading comes off as angry and poorly constructed screed. Instead of calling poeple NIMBY’s why don’t you try to understand their concerns rather than simply dismiss them with little thought.

          Clearly you do not understand the history of what has gone on in Watertown and also the history of disparaging posts against good people. This is what I am reacting to.

          I stand by everything that I wrote. I have been following this debate for a long time, here and elsewhere. Think about things a bit more deeply, rather than resorting to the NIMBY business. That’s too easy.

  8. Ediotr, thanks for getting an actual journalist to write this. Thanks for this epxreinced perspective and professional tone. More letters and articles like this , please! Thank to Mr. Pickering for doing this. Please have more of you colleagues write for the paper.

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