At CityAwake, Boston’s millennials offer food for thought

The Gateway Cities Journal

Last week, we met with a group of about 30 young millennials living in and around Boston to talk Gateway City TOD. The forum was the Boston Chamber of Commerce’s CityAwake Summit, a convening that engages young professionals in dialogue about the most pressing issues facing the region. We screened our Promise and Potential of Gateway City TOD video, and then partnered up with the MassINC Polling Group to get reactions through focus group-style dialogue.

To set the stage just a bit more, it’s fair to say that the group was diverse, both demographically and geographically. Bostonians did make up a large share, but about one-quarter of these young professionals lived beyond 128.

For these younger residents, the order of concern is definitely housing crisis first/congestion second. They simply cannot afford to live here. One young man was paying $1,700 a month for a studio apartment in Weymouth. A young woman said she worked out a side deal to sleep in a space above her office in Plymouth. With many of these millennials living far removed from transit, an unusually high percentage were forced to drive to work. Nobody in the room viewed this mode of travel as the preferred option.

Young people gather at CityAwake

Considering how many were living further out, it was surprising that there was only one person in the group who said she took the commuter rail to work. When asked why they weren’t riding, they made it abundantly clear that the cost of a commuter rail pass was the biggest barrier. A few also mentioned unreliability (the regular rider complained about “slippery rails” delaying her commute by 30 minutes that very day). Those looking to get in and out of the city for social occasions expressed concerns about safety, both at Back Bay station in the evenings and also on long empty trains with few personnel.

When asked about choosing Gateway Cities as a place to live, it got interesting. They were all 100 percent open to the idea. It sounded like these millennials want apartments with higher-end finishes. (They’ve had enough of living with multiple roommates in run-down apartments. At this stage, they feel like they should be in a position to do better). This certainly comports with efforts to use tools like the oversubscribed Housing Development Incentive Program (HDIP) to create an attractive housing product that doesn’t currently exist in many Gateway City neighborhoods near transit.

At the same time, it was clear that this generation is sensitive to the issues of gentrification and displacement. Some are understandably skeptical of the notion that Gateway City TOD will be different and produce benefits that are more widely shared. Above all, they don’t want others to be victimized by their arrival. Somewhat relatedly, they also voiced concerns about feeling welcome and a part of the community. One young man pointed out that the Lawrence station isn’t in the heart of the city’s downtown; he didn’t want to be isolated in a housing complex where residents primarily just come and go.

We’ll have much more to say on these topics soon, including a December episode of the Gateways podcast featuring Sal Lupoli, a Merrimack Valley developer who dreams big when it comes to serving this market. But for now, we leave our readers with this food for thought, and wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving. Eat well!

-Ben Forman

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