Boston – Greater Boston continues to struggle with a lack of affordable housing, as tight inventory and rising costs continue to place significant burdens on homebuyers and renters. At the same time, flaws in the systems around subsidized housing mean that thousands of people who qualify for subsidies are getting lost in a fragmented system that is difficult to navigate.
Those are the major conclusions in the Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2022, which was released at an event at the Boston Foundation on Wednesday. The report card comprises three parts: a look at the current state of the market by Luc Schuster and the team at Boston Indicators; a special analysis of equity in subsided housing conducted by Katherine Levine Einstein and Maxwell Palmer of the Initiative on Cities at Boston University; and an accompanying series of interactive data and insights.
“The report as a whole tells a concerning and all-too-familiar story of high prices, low vacancy rates, and systems that make it difficult and often impossible for people, especially families of color, to navigate the complex rules and application requirements for subsidized housing,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “As a result, thousands of families struggle not just with the lack of availability, but with a fragmented process that defies any goals of equity and diversity.”
Twenty years in, data show a continuing struggle
The first half of the report, from Boston Indicators, examines the state of the current housing market and the factors that are driving costs for renters and homebuyers in Greater Boston across five different suburban and urban community types.
The report finds housing supply continues to grow more slowly than need, and that Greater Boston owners and renters pay among the highest rates in the country for their homes – driven by a lack of available options. Vacancy rates in Greater Boston lag both those in most major cities and the levels that define a healthy housing market. As a result, Boston homes sell more quickly than homes in any other major metropolitan area.
While market forces suggest an opportunity for new construction, the region and state are not producing new homes quickly enough to meet even relatively modest production goals. Despite a slight increase in housing permits, new production paces at barely half of the goal set in 2016 by the Metro Mayors Coalition for 185,000 new units by 2030 in 15 cities and barely exceeds the Baker Administration’s goal of 135,000 new units statewide by 2025.
The results of this tight inventory are record-high prices and a lack of progress in closing the historic racial homeownership gap. Black and Latino families are much more likely to rent than own their homes, whether in cities or suburbs – and Black homebuyers have clustered in a handful of regional urban centers, like Brockton, Worcester, Springfield and Taunton. Greater Boston rents have also bounced back from pandemic lows – rent in most Greater Boston neighborhoods now exceeds 2019 levels.
For renters and owners, the rising cost of housing has increased most sharply relative to wages for lower-income households, adding to housing cost burdens. The report finds that around 45 percent of Greater Boston renters (and 26 percent of homeowners) pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing expenses, and nearly one-in-four renters pay more than half their monthly income for housing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black and Latino owners and renters are more likely to be cost-burdened across all types of communities.
In the final chapters of this section, the Indicators research connects these cost and access metrics to housing instability and homelessness. The study finds that policy responses to the COVID recession have kept eviction filings and foreclosure petitions below pre-pandemic levels. Still, data show continuing racial imbalances –Black and Latino families are more likely to face housing instability.
Subsidized housing and systemic problems
The Boston Indicators team sets the stage for the ‘Special Topic’ of subsidized housing with a look at subsidized housing statewide by type. Not surprisingly, the data show that the “metro core communities,” including Boston and its immediate surroundings, have incorporated significantly more subsidized housing, and that suburbs are much less likely to have families using state or federal housing vouchers to pay for housing.
Who Can Win the Lottery?
While the core market data make it clear that the region needs more subsidized and market-rate housing, subsidized units in many communities sit vacant and are not allocated to the residents with the greatest need. This failure stems from the state’s inability to create a consistent process for listings and applications, coupled with obstacles in many communities that block those most in need of housing subsidies from accessing available units.
To better understand the system, authors Katherine Levine Einstein and Maxwell Palmer of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities worked with Housing Navigator, a nonprofit organization currently working to create a comprehensive database of subsidized housing opportunities, conducted interviews, and examined marketing and outreach plans for subsided housing units in several suburban developments.
They found three major types of barriers:
Fragmentation of Information: Information about subsidized housing in Massachusetts is deeply fragmented across multiple units of government and nonprofits. The absence of complete, centralized databases means that residents of one city or town are often entirely unaware of available units in a neighboring community.
Compounding the lack of comprehensive listings, Einstein and Palmer examined the “affirmative marketing plans” for affordable units within several suburban developments and found that those plans often failed to share information with agencies in nearby cities and towns that would be most likely to have potential applicants.
Fragmented Application Process: Each jurisdiction—and sometimes each development—comes with its own complex application process. This administrative burden creates a formidable obstacle to the region’s subsidized housing seekers.
Exclusionary Restrictions: Suburban subsidized housing is often exclusionary on several dimensions. It can be restricted to residents of a suburban jurisdiction through the use of local preferences. Moreover, it is often too expensive for many low-income households. It is frequently located in transit inaccessible locations, creating impossible commutes for households lacking vehicles.
“These barriers in concert create a system that makes it difficult – if not impossible – for homeseekers to access subsidized units,” said Einstein. “With a new Governor coming to Beacon Hill, there is also a unique opportunity to implement meaningful policy changes that could improve information and application systems, eliminate unnecessary restrictions and open the door for more affordable, transit-accessible housing.”
The report concludes with ten policy recommendations to spark greater access and opportunity for homeseekers, including the creation of a new Massachusetts Office of Fair Housing, improved enforcement of fair housing laws and regulations, and the creation of better systems and oversight of housing data statewide. The report also recommends reducing restrictive covenants, such as age restrictions and local preferences, and reinforcing or encouraging regulations to allow for greater construction of all housing types.
The 2022 Greater Boston Housing Report Card is available for download at tbf.org/GBHRC2022. The website also features interactive charts and an appendix that includes city- and town-level data from dozens of Greater Boston communities.