Last month, The Boston Foundation released its annual Greater Boston Housing Report Card, telling an all-too-familiar story amidst the growing national housing affordability crisis: too few homes are being produced to keep up with growing demand, particularly for those who need it the most. In the Boston metro area, residents are particularly vulnerable, with almost half of the residents paying more than a third of their household income towards keeping a roof over their heads.
The problem of why housing supply does not keep up with demand is well documented: high barriers for builders to enter new markets, burdensome regulations, lengthy approval processes, and frequent misalignment between developers and the local community. As a result, many projects that could happen—and should because of the severe nationwide housing supply gap of 6M homes—never start because of perceived risk. More recently, the crisis has escalated even further as raising interest rates and inflation drive prices even higher.
To solve the housing crisis, we need to solve this supply issue and while it's great to see the Biden Administration thinking about this at the national level, land use policies today are highly localized with minimal state and federal involvement. In recent years, policymakers have certainly made strides in the right direction, including Massachusetts’ new Multi-Family Zoning Requirement for MBTA Communities and Boston’s Mayor Wu's recent executive order to streamline affordable housing production. However, gaining local community buy-in remains an unpredictable and challenging hurdle to building the new homes that are needed.
One key reason why building housing is unpredictable is because developers can face opposition from concerned neighbors with legitimate concerns, which can lead to project downsizing, delays, or outright cancelation. Today, to solve this issue, developers often hire experienced and well-connected attorneys or permit expediters to both navigate the legal approvals process and engage with communities. To many, neighborhood associations feel like another obstacle to overcome, but, with the right tools and resources, we think they might just be the key to solving the housing crisis.
How Perci empowers neighborhoods to grow on their own terms
In our increasingly polarized world, having forums to develop shared language and understanding of reality is more important than ever, so I started Perci PBC, a public benefit corporation, to do exactly that for the housing market. Our process centers on the issues and unmet needs facing local communities, particularly those rapidly changing due to rising housing costs. By truly hearing about and making visible the priorities and vision of those who live there today, we’re investing in a common foundation. In these discussions, we unearth the tradeoffs that come with change and develop strategies for promoting changes that aren’t zero-sum. Development can—and should—work for the residents living there today, not against them.
Our mission is to promote equitable, positive change in the built environment by empowering communities to make building housing easier, fairer, and less uncertain. Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of hearing from people on all sides of the housing industry, from advocates fighting to keep vulnerable populations housed, to developers big-and-small facing uphill battles to respond to market needs, to community group leaders creating forums for civic engagement, to policy makers and elected officials helping manage this process of ongoing change.
It's been humbling for me that so many have taken the time to share their experiences with me, so Perci PBC can help be a part of the solution. I’m also so grateful to get to apply learnings and skills I gained from working in the technology sector to a different industry through facilitating design-thinking exercises, building relationships and partnerships with a range of organizations (public, private, and non-profit), and creating Perci Explore, a platform for communities to understand and engage with ongoing planning and development.
Announcing Perci Explore: Bringing transparency to an opaque process
Change is hard—and often daunting. Perci Explore is designed to enable those impacted to better understand the why and how behind that change. With that understanding, our hope is that community stakeholders can more effectively advocate for projects and changes to improve their neighborhood, which are often too hard to find out about and time-consuming to influence.
We leverage openly-available data, including from Boston’s open data portal, Analyze Boston, to provide a one-stop-shop for how a neighborhood might change in the future. Our tool enables everyday residents to find out about ongoing development reviews, permitted projects, and zoning petitions as well as access critical contextual data overlays, like existing regulations, public transit routes, and flood risk.
Here's a quick overview of the platform's features:
When you first land on Perci Explore, you'll find a color-coded map of Boston’s zip codes by the proportion of households that burdened by their cost of housing exceeding 30% of their income.
We believe in a not-too-distant future where aligned incentives means that all development can grow the economic pie and become win-win-win: maintaining financial incentives for continued private-sector investment, improving housing affordability, and advancing a neighborhood’s diversity and equity.
Development Activity & Contextual Data Layers
Returning to the Summary tab and zooming in reveals how the housing market is responding to the need for housing in real-time. The statistics on the left are dynamic and update based on what you've zoomed into, so you can find out about what's happening in the neighborhoods you care about.
Existing Property Conditions
In the current supply-constrained market, those who “got in early” benefit the most at the expense of locking out all but those who can place the highest bids. Starter homes no longer exist, forcing even those who want to stay in a community long-term to rent longer before being able to save enough for a down payment. To reverse this trend, we need to diversify the housing stock to provide homes at a range of sizes and price points that spreads out the skyrocketing cost of land.
Today, locating and reimagining underutilized properties is the job of developers, who take advantage of the market’s opacity and complexity to their own benefit. We’re working on turning today’s market dynamics on its head, so anyone—even everyday residents—can find opportunities and make Community-Led Development a reality in their neighborhood.
What’s ahead: Reversing how housing gets built with Community-Led Development
With rich data and engagement tools, we’re starting to pursue the next phase of our work: making true Community-Led Development a reality, which takes a completely different approach versus traditional development. Instead of communities being an afterthought or obstacle to overcome, they become the driving and motivating force behind new projects.
To do this, we’re using the data behind Perci Explore to find development opportunities and directly partner with existing landowners who understand that best way to achieve their own personal financial goals is through a community-led process that enlists the support of the neighborhood to achieve the highest and best use of their land. We help facilitate these community-led projects at no cost to the landowner. Instead, we ask them to agree to share back with the community any new value that gets created in this process. That way, everyone has aligned incentives to make the most of each opportunity.
Through online tools and live workshops, we work with residents to turn a blank slate into a possible project by crafting a Community Vision Statement. Only if there’s excitement and buy-in do we then work with our execution partners to dig deeper into financial feasibility and develop a more detailed Project Requirements Outline. This serves as the basis for solicitation of possible implementations of that vision, similar to how governments solicit Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for public projects. Once the best-suited community-oriented development team is selected, they’ll acquire the property and continue working alongside us to ensure that what gets built stays true to the original Community Vision Statement.
We already actively evaluating a few project sites, so stay tuned on our journey ahead!