Boston Tackles Housing with Dedicated Innovation Lab

Part of a $1.35 million grant will be used by the city's Housing Innovation Lab to increase Boston's housing stock by 53,000 units.

by / January 19, 2015
Houses in central Boston Flickr/Sharemomentssharelife

Two months before Boston knew it was one of 12 cities to win a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant to meet pressing civic challenges, it released a far-reaching housing strategy -- Boston 2030 -- to make room for 91,000 more Bostonians over 15 years. 

These closely timed events near 2014's end were no coincidence -- the city applied for the grant seeking partners for the strategy's Housing Innovation Lab, which will focus on innovations that spur housing development, according to Devin Quirk, director of operations in the city's Department of Neighborhood Development. 

Part of the $1.35 million innovation team (i-team) grant will be used by the lab to jumpstart the housing strategy, relying on the proven i-team approach of using data, innovation, and project and performance management. Then midway into the grant's three-year timeline, the city plans to switch its focus and tackle another yet-to-be-announced area.

"The intent of this lab is to help the city to think about new approaches to design, new approaches to financing, new approaches to construction, which can achieve the goals of having Boston remain a place that all families can call home," said Chris Osgood, co-chair of the city's Office of New Urban Mechanics. 

By spring, the city expects to hire four i-team members, all of whom will focus on the lab's mission of finding new ways to build the needed housing, while leveraging internal and external partners. 

The city is also asking industry leaders for their input, and already has met with members of the architecture community, including MIT and the MIT Media Lab. The goal is for the Housing Innovation Lab to use input from housing experts of all kinds -- including peer cities, architects, universities, nonprofits and community developers -- to meet the city's vision, looking at housing policy, design, size and cost. 

Many of these industries are already addressing Boston's housing issues, Quirk said, by lowering building costs, pursuing innovative housing for specific groups, ensuring its affordability and incorporating new architectural designs. What will make the lab useful and unique, he said, is that it will focus on solving Boston's housing issues in a collaborative way. 

"We've got some of the best and the brightest minds in housing in both the private sector and the academic sector here in our city," he added. "But not often enough does that result in real housing getting built in really innovative ways for Bostonians in Boston."

Early on, the i-team will define the lab's structure -- for instance, how the lab will operate and who will be involved. However the lab takes shape -- including the possibility of building a "place" to house the lab -- its platform must be sustainable, Quirk said. 

The i-team's work with the lab will last about a year, at which time the lab will stand on its own; the city intends for the Housing Innovation Lab to live beyond the i-team's involvement and even the 2030 strategy to evolve with the city's housing.  

"The challenges we have today may not be the same as five years from now," Quirk said. "But if we have a great innovation lab in place, we will be able to adapt and bring our community together to address those challenges."

In the end, the city intends for the lab to be a practical exercise producing real results, said Sheila Dillon, cabinet chief of housing and director of the city's Department of Neighborhood Development.  

"We want to take the best people in multiple industries, come up with the best thinking, but then we want that thinking to become real," Dillon said. "We want the housing to be built; we want the problem to be solved." 

But the city is not waiting for its i-team to form to start the lab's work -- its Office of New Urban Mechanics and Department of Neighborhood Development are collaborating with others to define the questions and obstacles standing between the housing stock now and the vision set for 15 years out. 

According to Boston 2030, the city wants to increase its housing stock by 53,000 units, which includes more housing for Boston's seniors, low- and middle-income households, and students. The strategy also seeks to alter the city's housing stock to decrease its carbon footprint and accommodate changing demographics and smaller families.

While Boston is a leader in subsidized affordable housing, the city wants to continue to invest in it, while also building market-rate housing that is affordable for Boston's middle-income workforce, said Quirk. 

Taking on a specific challenge with no defined solution and delivering on it in short order is the Bloomberg i-team approach, and Boston's as well. What sets the city apart is tackling the housing issue not as a tactical problem, Quirk said, but a strategic one over the long term. 

Besides the creation and investment in the lab over the long haul, Boston has shown its propensity to invest in innovation -- the Office of New Urban Mechanics is also pursuing civic innovations. But its work is broadly based, which Osgood said is why Boston is seeking a more focused approach with the lab. 

And the office, he said, shouldn't be the lone innovator entity in the city.   

"We should not own innovation," Osgood said, "because if we own innovation, it will never scale to the degree that we think that it should."

Jessica Hughes Contributing Writer

Jessica Hughes is a regular contributor to Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.