Tiny homes coming to Roxbury?

City seeking affordable options

Yawu Miller | 10/12/2016, 11:22 a.m.
The Urban Housing Unit landed in Roxbury last week, occupying a vacant lot on the corner of Blue Hill Avenue ...
The city’s Urban Housing Unit was stationed at a vacant lot on Blue Hill Avenue Banner photo

The Urban Housing Unit landed in Roxbury last week, occupying a vacant lot on the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Gaston Street, with the rectangular white unit’s front door facing the street. Visitors could proceed through the glass entryway into the bedroom of the 380-square-foot dwelling, past a small bathroom and into the kitchen/dining/living room area — and be done with the tour in mere seconds.

On the web

Urban Housing Unit: www.liveuhu.com/why#why-should-communities-support-more-uhus-in-new-projects

See also Tom Acitelli, “Boston micro-apartments: a brief history of the trend,” Boston.curbed.com, Sept. 19, 2016 at http://boston.curbed.com/2016/9/19/12970722/boston-tiny-apartments-history

While the tour is as short as the unit is small, the experiment, developed by the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, raises big questions about housing policy and the kinds of renters and buyers for whom city officials are planning. Chief among them: Are neighborhood residents ready for the micro-unit approach to housing that has spurred the construction of compact units in Boston’s super-heated Waterfront market?

City planners say the micro-unit, which they currently are displaying in different locations around the city, could help solve the pressing need for low-cost housing in the city. The demonstration unit, at 33’x13’, cost just $75,000 to build and could be constructed for even less if built in large quantities.

But neighborhood residents expressed skepticism about the need for the type of housing the unit represents.

“Families make up the majority of people in our neighborhood,” said Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association President Louis Elisa. “We don’t want the housing they’re putting in the Seaport District. That’s not the kind of community we want to have.”

Elisa’s neighborhood group, which is active in the same area of Grove Hall where the Urban Housing Unit was installed, has advocated for the construction of large single- and multi-family units on vacant parcels in the area. But Max Stearns, a project manager with the Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, says that the city has a shortage of one-bedroom and studio units.

“Part of what we’re looking at is what doesn’t exist in the current housing market, what’s not available,” he said.

According to statistics compiled by the Housing Innovation Lab, 37 percent of Boston residents are single adults, but just 16 percent of the housing units are one-bedrooms or studios. Stearns said he did not know whether that percentage includes students living in dormitories.

While neighborhood activists in Boston and other cities typically are resistant to the spread of student housing, Stearns said the Urban Housing Unit concept could serve other populations in the city’s neighborhoods, including the elderly, recent high school or college graduates and formerly homeless people. While the units are substantially smaller than the 450 square foot limit allowed by city zoning, Stearns said the city could modify its zoning laws to allow for the units, as was done for micro-units built in the Seaport District.

Advantage of affordability

A key advantage is the low cost of construction. In a city where the average cost per unit of new housing construction — including land — is $400,000, the less-than-$75,000 construction cost could be a game changer, Stearns said.