Millennials Like the Hub, But Can They Afford To Live Here?

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Call it the latest attempt to bridge the knowledge gap in Boston between aging Baby Boomers and the Millennials. The eminent Boston Foundation, a century-old, well-endowed charity that doubles as a think tank, is talking a lot more to the next generation as it prompts the city’s civic leaders to hand over the reins to Boston’s millennials.

“The baby boomers have been late in turning their attention to the millennials,” said Paul Grogan, foundation president, last month. “We still think we are young.”

There’s good reason for Grogan’s view.  His generation captured the benefits of a resurgent city. Grogan, a former official in the Kevin White mayoral administration, offered a quick history lesson to the small group of young activists gathered at his Arlington Street office.  In his early days, Detroit, the centrifugal industrial powerhouse, emerged as the American model while Boston struggled as its population and manufacturing base dwindled.  The worry back then was urban blight and suburban flight. City planners wrestled with revitalization ideas like what to do with Faneuil Hall and the waterfront.

“Think about how things have changed,” he noted. Detroit is near fiscal and economic ruin while Boston, bursting with innovative energy, is a model for the knowledge economy. The city skyline, dotted with construction cranes, indicates that the current Renaissance still has legs.  If economic growth is dependent on population growth then Boston is well-positioned:  The Boston Planning and Development Agency projects the city’s overall population will grow to 723,500 by 2030, up from 617,594 in 2010.   And, the city’s diverse economic mix (including finance, high-tech, biotechnology, hospitals, higher education) puts it in a better position than to rely on any major sector such as manufacturing, which was Detroit and the Rust Belt’s curse.

The millennials have their own contribution to the evolving narrative. Not long ago, local economic development experts were worried about losing college graduates to other parts of the nation.  That’s almost turned around. In Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, the population segment between ages 20 and 34 grew much faster from 2000 to 2015 than the overall population in each of these cities, according to the foundation.

Grogan noted that the Boston baby boomers are turning over a city that is far richer, on the move, and far removed from post-war doldrums — but one not without challenges.  As the recent Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce report revealed, all is not well at the kitchen-table discussion between young and old.

“Our future prosperity depends in no small part on our ability to support our millennial population,” noted Grogan. 

Among the 25 largest U.S. cities, Boston is home to the highest concentration of millennials –measured as those individuals between the ages of 20 and 34.  This cohort makes up a full 34 percent of its population. Moreover, a full 43 percent of millennials in 2015 were non-white or Hispanic white; and, as a group, has obtained more college degrees than prior generations. While spread across the city, millennials cluster around three major neighborhoods: 

Allston/Brighton, Fenway/Kenmore, and Roxbury. The city’s technological hub serves millennials well. Most would like to live in neighborhoods with a “downtown feel” and access to public transit. This Uber-riding, data-driven segment of the population is more comfortable with new conceptions of big city life. They demand more bike lanes rather than parking spaces. 

They are a natural fit for the city’s progressive politics, and if their enthusiasm for the candidacy of Bernie Sanders is any guide they can push coastal Democratic enclaves further to the left.

“Millennials can take things as they are,” noted Malia Lazu, president of the Epicenter Community, adding that more than three-fourths are willing to take a pay cut “to stand for something.” Yet their engagement in local politics, as Boston City Council President Michelle Wu notes, has yet to emerge. “When it comes to decision-making bodies there is a lack of millennials at the table,” she says.

As one of the panelists who were asked to size up the future, Stas Gayshan of the Cambridge Innovation Center best described the Boston millennial outlook: “We wake up in the morning and look challenges in the face … and my job is to fix it. We were taught to share our toys and share our values.”

In its survey, conducted through the chamber-affiliated innovation lab City Awake, the civic leaders found a sense of unease among millennials committed to the overall excitement of big city life. There is broad agreement that the Greater Boston economy will exceed expectations, but close to home young residents are worried about their own relationship to the economy. They like the city but think staying here may be out of reach for them. “They would like to grow up here in urban core,” noted Luc Schuster, director of the foundation’s Boston Indicators Project, “but for housing.”

The city’s chronic housing problem, a byproduct of the draw of high-income employment and desirability, has taken prominence in policy debates going as far back as the 1980s.  But today’s housing challenges feed into the overall economic anxiety across the nation and locally.  The survey captured the belief that the American Dream, where each generation surpasses the one before it, is drifting away.  According to the survey, “children born in 1940 had a 92 percent chance of earning more than their parents, compared to only 50 percent of children born in 1980.” 

The foundation and its researchers also found that more than 70 percent of Boston millennials disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “There are plenty of economic opportunities for people from every socioeconomic background.” That sentiment is even more pronounced among black and Hispanic respondents, who said “they were unable to save, unable to meet housing payments, or had incomes that did not meet their needs, compared to white and Asian respondents to the survey.”

Housing problems are still wrapped up in terms of race, a theme stressed by Lazu. “You don’t feel welcome if you don’t have a place to stay,” she told the audience. Despite a history of innovation in the city’s economy —think hip-hop, fashion, and food says Lazu — the minority community is vastly underrepresented in the tech sector that serves as ground zero for millennial workplaces. Lazu places that figure at 2 percent of the high-tech sector. In contrast to the high-disposable-income profile, a quarter of Greater Boston’s young adults have incomes at or below the poverty level.  But that hasn’t stopped Lazu. She created Accelerate Boston, an incubator that has started 16 businesses in Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester.

The elusive quest by millennials for urban living, inviting neighborhoods, and “meaningful” work lives runs up against the economic realities of supply and demand. The new enthusiasm for greener, socially interactive cities attracts highly skilled workers who bid up prices for housing and other consumable items. “It is not possible to work in a nonprofit and live in Greater Boston,” one of the survey’s roughly 300 respondents told the foundation. Thus, “more than 70 percent of the respondents were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the local housing market.”


Boston Housing Challenges Through Millennial Eyes: 9 Findings From a New Poll; MassInc poll for the Boston Foundation (June 2017).


Unlike other parts of the country, Boston, one of the oldest cities in the United States, has no land for new development. That leaves developers building from the ground up. Boston also has a cultural preference for traditional zoning, historic preservation, and open space. These preferences have long been embedded in Boston’s progressive politics that enables small groups to delay and oppose new development because there are explicit and implicit limits to growth. 

If anything, the millennials are more open to transit-centered housing, and that means more density, which rattles the longstanding consensus. This tension shows up in the foundation’s survey.

A majority of respondents between 18 and 44 years old (which covers current millennials) “think that density improves the feel of their community, whereas older voters are much more likely to think greater density makes their community feel worse.” That split even shows up within the millennial sample between different income groups. As they earn more millennials are less likely to support dense housing. 

This compelling division between age groups on density is not lost upon Jesse Kanson-Benanav, the founder of A Better Cambridge. Kanson-Bananav represents the refreshingly insurgent YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movement frustrated by the low-density land use model in Greater Boston.  He calls for a “coalition of the willing” to show up at community hearings to fight against downzoning efforts that prevent housing from clustering around the MBTA transit system.  Incidentally, the Boston Foundation poll noted the opposition to transit-centered development from older residents. More than half of those surveyed older than 60 opposed such development.  Often facing a backlash at zoning meetings, Kanson-Benanav says, “It takes an entrepreneurial spirit just to show up.”

Progress comes in small steps, and the preferences of today’s millennials may recast the city’s approach to increase affordable housing by loosening up the restraints on private housing developers and high-density living. The ground is shifting. After much debate, state authorities have enabled ride-sharing companies to pick up passengers at the airport and Boston convention center, no doubt a nod to the market demands of millennial travelers. Calls for longer operating time for bars and restaurants, BYOB carve-outs for small eateries, and quick access to the MBTA are other signature millennial quality-of-life changes. The new high-density-done-right thinking on housing could be next.

“We need Newton to step up,” concluded Kanson-Bananav. 


Frank Conte is editor and publisher of, established in 1995.