Pandemic exacerbated housing inequities, but offered examples of possible solutions

Policy recommendations explored in Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2021

June 30, 2021

Boston – The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated inequities in the Greater Boston housing market, but policy actions designed to ease the crisis could provide examples for longer-term housing and economic policies. That’s the finding of researchers from the UMass Donahue Institute, the Massachusetts Housing Partnership and the Boston Foundation in the 18th annual edition of the Greater Boston Housing Report Card.

Cover of GBHRC2021 Explore the report

The report, titled Pandemic Housing Policy: From Progress to Permanence was released in an online event Wednesday morning. In the report, researchers looked at where and how the economic disruptions of the COVID pandemic affected Greater Boston’s longstanding racial inequities in housing and the economy. In most cases, while the pandemic itself exacerbated or created new pressures, efforts to provide stability by adding resources and policy solutions not only provided short-term relief, they could provide a blueprint for effective longer-term measures.

“The massive government interventions in housing and the economy were critical lifelines at a time when COVID was disproportionately ravaging communities of color across the region,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “These efforts, though, are neither perfect nor permanent. Black and Latinx households in Greater Boston are still more likely to have missed a housing payment and have a greater fear of eviction and foreclosure - and if we fail to act for the longer term, we are simply continuing the legacy of decades of inequity.”

Widespread impact softened by government action

Report authors examined the pandemic’s impact across three areas: economic inequality and cost burden, housing stability, and the housing market. They found that the pandemic worsened inequity, with disproportionately negative impacts on employment and health in communities of color throughout Greater Boston. Residents of those hardest-hit cities were more likely to have lost their jobs, or more likely to perform essential services that made working from home impossible and put them at higher health risk. In addition, cities with high rates of crowded housing, such as Chelsea and Lawrence, saw infection rates more than two and a half times the regional average.

In areas where housing affordability was already tenuous, what kept thousands from suffering a worse fate was the availability of unemployment benefits and emergency rental assistance to reduce housing cost burdens. Housing cost burdens, already challenging in many cities, had gotten worse before the pandemic across the region.

The breadth and depth of the pandemic’s economic and health impacts, however, forced an unprecedented level of government intervention. The widespread distribution of stimulus checks proved especially critical - and went to meet basic needs.

“At a time when housing cost burdens were already high, particularly for Black and Latinx renters and homeowners, the pandemic triggered job loss and health threats that exacerbated the situation,” said Mark Melnik, Director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute. “Pandemic assistance gave families needed income to spend on food, housing and other basic needs to temporarily lift at least somewhat this critical burden on households.”

Equally important were efforts to protect renters and homeowners from eviction and foreclosure. Shelter and hotel caseloads fell and rent collections actually have remained stable during 2020 and 2021, likely the result of temporary renter protections, increased unemployment payments and emergency rental assistance.

Despite these efforts, once the statewide eviction moratorium ended in the fall of 2020, evictions resumed and continue at higher rates in the region’s Gateway Cities and Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan and Hyde Park. While the research suggests the combination of state and federal efforts have been critical to maintaining levels of housing stability, fears of eviction and foreclosure in some communities and this unequal impact of foreclosures persist.

The pandemic also highlighted the region’s continued struggle to create affordable housing supply, especially near transit. Construction of new housing slowed down in the spring of 2020, yet demand increased over the course of the year. The rental picture was slightly better - data show Greater Boston rents fell during the pandemic, although the decrease was not uniform, and some communities outside Boston have seen significant rent increases.

Policy recommendations: Opportunities for further action

In each section, report authors not only catalogued the impact of the pandemic on the region, but also made policy recommendations, informed by actions taking during the past 16 months to support households and stabilize housing.

For example, the impact of stimulus payments and expanded unemployment benefits during the crisis suggest an opportunity for expanding income assistance and moving toward a universal basic income. In addition, more targeted housing vouchers and guaranteed housing assistance could have an immediate impact on families.

To stabilize the housing market in Greater Boston, simplifying the rental process, accelerating needed disbursements, and continuing to fund Rental Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) and other rental assistance programs beyond the pandemic at sufficient levels to prevent evictions would provide needed supports, while expanding procedures and interventions focused on mediation and eviction prevention could have a powerful impact.

Lastly, to strengthen housing supply, the report authors recommend legalizing small-scale multifamily housing and expanding the mandate for multifamily zoning in MBTA communities, strengthening reforms that make affordable development easier and limit displacement, as well as investments in transit to better serve transit-dependent populations and to better support new or planned housing development.

“The pandemic has required unprecedented efforts to stabilize the economy and keep people in their homes,” said Calandra Clark, Director of Policy at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “But in making those efforts, we have gotten a valuable opportunity to implement policies that could help guide us forward. If we are willing to continue these investments, the long-term payoff could be life-changing for thousands of Greater Boston residents and significant for our local economy.”