Chapter 2 of the 2021 Greater Boston Housing Report Card: Housing StabilityRead More
Inadequate housing construction and the absence of a regional housing plan led to insufficient housing supply and little diversity in our housing stock—a major problem for Greater Boston and Massachusetts since well before the pandemic. After a brief initial slowdown at the start of the pandemic, demand surged for homes over the last year, while housing supply remained drastically short. This is a recipe for further price increases in a region already struggling with high housing costs. The housing supply shortage disproportionately impacts low- and moderate-income residents and communities of color. The recent enactment of Housing Choice legislation and a state mandate for multifamily zoning in communities served by the MBTA are major steps forward, yet even stronger policies are needed to reverse decades of inadequate production in Greater Boston and to create more affordable housing options in the region.
This chapter will discuss the state, regional and local roles in creating a healthier housing delivery system, highlighting how uneven development patterns, an absence of coordinated state planning and production requirements, and local opposition to new housing have created a housing shortage and affordability crisis. The pandemic showed how our constrained housing delivery system and lack of regional coordination benefits those with means (soaring home sales prices), while limiting opportunities for low- and moderate-income residents (concentration of rental housing, high rents and increasing rents in lowercost markets). The policy section will emphasize the role of comprehensive planning in balancing mobility, public health, equity and climate goals with housing needs.
In addition to a regional housing approach, Greater Boston needs its municipalities to practice inclusionary zoning that allows accessory dwelling units, multifamily by right and overall competent planning. Ultimately, the creation of more housing of diverse types at affordable prices in locations that provide residents with high levels of access to employment opportunities is essential to ensure everyone has a place to live in good times and bad.*
* This edition of the report does not feature scorecards by municipality because it seems sensible to pause in the wake of the pandemic, as municipalities deal with emergency supports. However, in addition to a regional housing plan, local best practices for housing production tracked in prior scorecards are even more important for housing recovery than before. Approaches to allow accessory dwelling units, multifamily by right and overall inclusionary zoning practices remain critical. Even without scoring, a collection of municipal-level data is offered and appears in tables in the Appendix.
Before COVID, Greater Boston was not meeting its housing production needs.27 In 2017, Governor Charlie Baker set a statewide target to produce 135,000 housing units between 2018 and 2025, a continuation of housing permit rates that prevailed from 2015 to 2017. So far, statewide permitting rates have remained on pace to meet the 2025 target (see Figure 32). Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a partnership among 15 inner-core communities,28 established a more ambitious goal of 185,000 units to be produced between 2016 and 2030 in those communities. While the coalition includes some of the biggest contributors to regional housing production, including Boston, the group is well behind the permitting pace needed to meet the 2030 goal (see Figure 33).
These goals are attempting to make up for decades of declining production. Inadequate housing construction has been an issue since the 1980s, with annual production in the 2010s at just 52 percent of production levels in the 1980s. This, despite the region’s experiencing strong population growth (especially for the Northeast) over the last couple of decades. Among other metro regions across the country, Greater Boston consistently finds itself situated toward the bottom in terms of per capita housing production.
While some other high-demand metros in the South and West have added new housing at high rates in recent years, Greater Boston lags alongside former industrial centers with limited housing demand and the California metropolitan areas where rent prices are also extremely high and increasing. In 2019, the Boston Metro area produced less housing per person than the New York, Washington, D.C. and Seattle metropolitan areas (see Appendix Figure 16 for the number of permits issued by the 25 largest MSAs in 2019). This failure to provide enough housing has an impact on prices and makes it more difficult for the region to retain residents while welcoming newcomers. The pandemic has not helped; 2020 production totals are expected to be slightly lower due to a brief construction pause in spring 2020.
Not only has Greater Boston struggled to produce enough housing, but the housing it produces is increasingly concentrated in a few municipalities, most notably the city of Boston, in both absolute numbers of units as well as relative to the existing housing stock (see Figure 34). Exclusionary zoning and local opposition make it difficult to build housing outside of inner-core communities. State initiatives such as Chapter 40B and Chapter 40R have had a positive impact on housing production, but they are not nearly enough. If the region is to meet its production goals, more municipalities will have to step up to the plate. A table of building permits—both as absolute numbers and as a share of existing housing stock—for single-family and multifamily units for each municipality in the region is available in Appendix Figure 17 of this report.
Having enough housing is one challenge and locating that housing in efficient locations that improve mobility and minimize climate impacts is another. The region has rapid transit and commuter rail infrastructure that allow for shorter, more environmentally friendly travel into urban and commercial centers. To best utilize these systems, municipalities should prioritize housing development within walking distance of a station, a concept known as transit-oriented development. As explored on the Transit Oriented Development Explorer (TODEX) website, access to transit is not evenly distributed across the region: Many commuter rail stations have very low surrounding densities.29 Municipalities with commuter rail access have failed to produce enough new housing along their transit-rich corridors. As analyzed by Brookings and Boston Indicators, building moderate amounts of housing near transit can lower the barrier to entry into some of Greater Boston’s most inaccessible communities.30
A useful way to measure the impact of the production shortage is through vacancy rates. A “healthy” vacancy rate is when the market has enough inventory to account for the natural mobility of households. With adequate inventory on the market, a person selling a home or ending a rental lease can expect to find another property suitable to their needs. When vacancy rates are too low, it becomes challenging to find a suitable, affordable housing option. A “healthy” vacancy rate is often considered to be roughly two percent for home ownership and six percent for rentals, by industry standards.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, vacancy rates in Greater Boston remained incredibly low. By 2019, the homeownership vacancy rate was down to 0.6 percent in Middlesex County. The rental market experienced a similar pre-pandemic trend, declining to as low as 2.9 percent in Suffolk and Plymouth counties (see Figure 35). Across the region, vacancy rates remain well below the two and six percent benchmarks. With vacancy rates so low in the region, it is little wonder that housing prices and rents remain astronomical.
While reliable vacancy data are not yet available for 2020, market activity suggests vacancy rates will be even lower in the ownership market in 2020. As Figure 36 illustrates, the surge in buyer demand during the pandemic, combined with a lack of inventory, caused a decline in average listing duration and upward pressure on prices. Following an initial stall at the beginning of the pandemic, the local housing market started heating back up in June 2020. From July onward, house sale listings were coming off the market 20 to 37 percent faster than in 2019, which was already a hot market to begin with. The pandemic ignited a surge in demand for new homes but did little to loosen up additional supply. Years of underproduction meant that the region was not prepared for the rapid shift in demand.
Region-wide, home sale prices have steadily trended upward since the Great Recession. Insufficient production of new housing in Greater Boston has kept that trend in motion. By 2019, home sale prices in Greater Boston were among the highest in the nation. Despite rising income levels pre-pandemic, home price increases were outpacing income growth and homeownership was becoming unattainable for a growing percentage of households. In the early phases of the pandemic, housing prices grew more gently than usual and then shot up in the summer of 2020, as constrained supply and pent-up demand combined to place upward pressure on prices. Likely spurred by stuck-at-home consumers’ desire for more living space and low mortgage interest rates, with no parallel increase in supply, the region’s housing sales market set records in 2020 (see Figure 37). In particular, single-family homes reflect outsized, likely unsustainable, price leaps across all counties in the region.
By February 2021, median sales prices approached $700,000, a full $100,000 increase over February 2020, the last month before the pandemic. This housing price surge was coupled with low listing durations, despite normal amounts of total home listings, indicating that it was demand wave that drove up prices. Along with the cost of borrowing for a home reaching new lows, new pandemic-related flexibility to move for white-collar workers may have also contributed to housing demand, as Figure 38 suggests.. This sharp trajectory of the current trend may lessen as the public health crisis abates, allowing more flexibility for additional homes to come on the market as it becomes safer and more common for people to be together inside homes again. Further, time will tell which elements of post-pandemic life may influence the housing market. For example, remote work could become a permanent part of white-collar work life in the future.
In a region already struggling to control its housing costs, the pandemic exacerbated the regional homeownership wealth gap. Those who owned property are experiencing record value growth while those who could not afford a home before the pandemic are now less likely than ever to bridge the gap.
The pre-pandemic rental market largely followed a similar trajectory to the sales market. After the 2008 recession, median rents quickly climbed across the region. At the same time as the homeownership market was becoming less accessible, households were forced to spend an ever-increasing share of their income on rent. Between 2000 and 2019 rental cost burden levels shot up across the region. This trend was especially hard felt in inner core and Gateway Cities, which saw a surge in demand that drove prices to record highs.
During the pandemic, however, the sales market and the rental market diverged onto two different trajectories. The rental market in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) overall dropped, according to Zillow (see Figure 39). The Zillow Observed Rent Index measures change in rents over time and weights rental properties with U.S. Census data to represent the rental market as a whole, not just openings listed online. While the 10 largest MSAs mostly held their comparative position, the Index shows a dramatic decrease in Greater Boston rents by several hundred dollars compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Early data indicate the apparent overall decrease in rents was not at all uniform across the region. A drop in rental demand, and therefore prices in high-rent areas, was certainly depressed in part by restrictions on international in-migration, as well as on in-person class instruction at area colleges and universities. At the same time, increased mobility and desire for more in-home space for some workers may have brought rental markets in the region together: some municipalities saw rent increases while others, some of which rarely see decreases, showed large declines in prices (see Figure 40). It is unclear what will happen regionally as the health crisis eases, businesses reopen, white collar work presumably resumes some in-person activity (with potential for increased flexibility), and students return to more traditional in-person class instruction.
Listings in the Boston rental market experienced a rare decrease, falling markedly during the pandemic. As illustrated in Figure 41, in Boston, median two-bedroom rent dropped from $2,108 in December 2019 to $1,674 in December 2020. The most likely cause was a sudden drop in demand, as many students (especially international) did not attend in-person classes in 2020. Thus, while the resulting decline in median rents was good for potential renters in the region, the cause of the decline was not a desirable nor replicable condition. Students and others will be returning to the area this year, and we can expect the rental market to act accordingly. If the region intends to maintain lower rent prices, it will need to do so via an increase in supply.
Housing, mobility and employment are intertwined. A high-functioning transit system helps connect us from our homes to the rest of the region. Among MBTA services, low-income riders and communities of color are most dependent on bus service and rapid transit (see Figure 42).31 Low-wage workers are also less likely to work remotely, a situation that has created a disproportionate reliance on public transit among low-income and frontline workers during the pandemic. While overall transit ridership declined sharply during the pandemic, train stations and bus lines serving communities with high proportions of low-income residents and frontline workers have retained a notable share of the riders.32 Frontline workers have kept our economy and society functioning and our transit system is critical in helping these workers move around the region, further demonstrating that transit is not a commodity but an essential service and public good.
Because low-income households tend to be more dependent on public transit service, they are more impacted by service interruptions and cuts. While the MBTA’s “Forging Ahead” plan for service cuts in light of the pandemic did seek to preserve or expand service on routes with high ridership or that serve transit-dependent populations,33 any cuts to transit service reduce reliability and ridership in ways that are difficult to recoup once widespread demand returns. With federal assistance staving off some of the financial hardship borne by the MBTA34 and signals of a renewed federal commitment to funding transit,35 there is hope among many transit proponents that coming out of the pandemic Greater Boston may see fully restored service and even a movement toward a more connected, bi-directional, high service transit system.36
Investments in other non-car transportation will be essential, too. Prior to the pandemic, the Greater Boston region earned the lamentable distinction of having the worst traffic in the country.37 While traffic initially declined sharply following the onset of the pandemic, it is returning to pre-pandemic levels across much of the state.38 This is unsustainable from a climate, land use and quality of life perspective, and moving away from single-occupancy vehicles is the only path forward to improving traffic outcomes.
One direct way to connect housing policy with transit and climate outcomes is to develop more dense housing in areas well-served by transit. With recently enacted legislation that requires communities served by the MBTA to have at least one district that allows for dense multifamily housing by right,39 we are poised to make great strides in improving the way we coordinate housing policy with other key objectives such as transportation improvements and greenhouse gas reduction. As will be discussed in the policy section, zoning alone will only go so far, and other strategies, such as shared streets, transit investments and reducing or eliminating parking and other car infrastructure can complement zoning in a way that encourages different mobility choices and patterns.
While the past year has highlighted the region’s chronic supply problem, some significant state-level policy changes are now poised to increase the number of homes across the region. Most notably, the legislature enacted Housing Choice legislation, which lowers the threshold required for zoning changes that promote housing production from a supermajority to a simple majority. The legislature also enacted a mandate for multifamily zoning in all communities served by the MBTA. In combination these are two powerful tools that will facilitate housing production in transit-rich corridors. Additional legislative actions and policy priorities would use this momentum and complement these landmark zoning reforms.
Build on recent zoning reforms: Allow multifamily housing development by right, create more opportunities for adaptive use, empower regional planning, and embrace sustainable development.
Improve the quality and frequency of transit service.
Frequency of daytime service and weekend and latenight service are critical equity and public benefit considerations as well as for anyone seeking to buy, rent or develop new housing near transit. The MBTA proposed deep service cuts across the entire system late last year, though it did increase service along some lines and routes based upon an equity analysis of rider retention data. While some proposed service cuts were walked back by the MBTA, from a housing perspective there should not be any cuts to service at all, particularly since federal funding has made service cuts completely unnecessary.
Given the important connections between housing and transit, particularly for low-income households, policies that increase service and improve the quality of our transit infrastructure should be a focal point for housing policy. Rather than defending against service cuts and coping with a decaying system, attention should be turned toward a broader and more comprehensive vision of the region’s transit system. The following measures would improve transit and facilitate higher levels of mobility and access from homes across the region.
Advance housing equity.
Increasing equity through policy is crucial to the wellbeing of the housing market in the region, not just the most vulnerable places in the region. Greater Boston, like the nation, has a troubling legacy of racial discrimination in access to housing, epitomized by explicit redlining that was sanctioned by the federal government well into the 1960s. Those practices have put some people at a severe multigenerational disadvantage in building wealth, as evidenced by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s The Color of Wealth published in 2015. Low-income renters are displaced when people with higher incomes bid up prices on artificially constrained supply of housing and when new housing is unduly concentrated in just a few neighborhoods.
The City of Boston and the Commonwealth have actively addressing this problem since the early 1990s by expanding access to mortgage credit for previously underserved people and neighborhoods, but progress is slow. Recent interagency efforts by DHCD, MassHousing and the Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP) along with outside partners established an important goal of reducing the gap between White and non-White homeownership rates by five percent or approximately 52,000 households by 2030.
The greatest way to achieve housing equity in the long run is to allow sufficient housing supply to meet demand, actively confront housing discrimination, eliminate exclusionary zoning, ensure that every city, town and neighborhood is permitting a fair share of new housing, and target affordable housing resources to those with the greatest need.
Experiment with building techniques and strategies that could reduce housing production costs.
Current levels of affordable housing production meet just a fraction of the need for low-cost housing across the region. Affordable housing production remained relatively flat in recent years with resources consumed by higher development costs, including construction costs per square foot that are 20 percent above the national average.
Across the country the health burdens and economic effects of the pandemic have disproportionately impacted low-wage workers and communities of color. This divergence is symptomatic of long existing structural inequities and serves to further deepen inequality along class and racial lines. While patterns of unequal economic and health vulnerabilities are not unique to Greater Boston, this region is one of the highest-cost housing markets in the country and that puts great pressure on all of our residents, but particularly low- and moderateincome households. As we know, high housing costs lead to crowding with consequences for health, creates vulnerability for eviction or foreclosure, and generates greater urgency to work even in unsafe circumstances. Furthermore, this is a far-reaching burden that crosscuts all but the wealthiest households and hampers community economic development and stability. Because of this, equity of housing affordability is at the nexus of our communities’ most critical needs in Greater Boston.
The pandemic’s relationship to housing affordability was multifold: Existing economic inequalities were exacerbated by the pandemic-driven economic downturn, particularly for renters already stretched thin by high housing costs. These challenges fall heavily on lower income residents and Hispanic/Latinx and Black families. Peoples’ lives were turned upside down by the crisis. Housing production lagged. Home prices skyrocketed. Rental markets were disrupted. Yet instability from evictions, foreclosures and homelessness were mitigated by a vigorous policy response at federal, state and local levels. Policy interventions were innovative and hard-hitting, backed with sizeable monetary resources, and made an important impact. We believe policy interventions during the pandemic provide a roadmap for future proactive attempts to create more stability and resilience in the housing market. These policies serve as inspiration to address the existing supply and demand problems that created the untenable housing cost issues in the region in the first place.
Greater Boston is facing new and old housing challenges in the wake of the pandemic, but from a position of strength. Our state and region have been national leaders on housing for the better part of a century. Our housing infrastructure is better than most and has generally served us well over the past year under extraordinary and almost unimaginable circumstances. This report illustrates programs and institutions that worked well when put to the test, identifies important new lessons learned as a result of the pandemic, and lays out opportunities for significant housing system reform that demand continuing attention. There is much more to accomplish with strong state, regional and local leadership.