The pandemic has laid bare inequities in the Greater Boston housing market that have persisted for generations. Cities with high rates of crowded housing, such as Chelsea and Lawrence, had infection rates more than two and a half times the regional average.* Residents of those hardest hit cities are more likely to be people of color, more likely to have lost their jobs, or more likely to perform essential services that put them at higher health risk. While people in particular occupations and neighborhoods were deeply affected by the pandemic, many other households were almost completely unscathed. Most households did not suffer from layoffs or lost income and existing homeowners generally saw large increases in the equity in their homes. The wealth gap in Massachusetts— particularly the racial wealth gap—appears to have only widened.
The pandemic also underscored the role that neighborhood characteristics play as a social determinant of health: Municipalities with more in-home crowding (households with more than one person per room) experienced higher COVID-19 case rates.
At its April 2020 peak, the Massachusetts unemployment
rate was 16.4 percent, far higher than during the Great
Recession. Workers who were least able to afford the loss
of employment or reduction of hours bore the brunt of the
economic downturn. During this difficult period the
provision of direct federal income support was critical.
The combination of stimulus payments, expansion of
unemployment benefits to gig workers, and extra unemployment
benefits of $600/week enabled many families to
pay their rent and keep their heads above water during the
depths of the crisis. Taken together, these initiatives
empirically proved the value of a guaranteed minimum
income and point the way to permanent federal reform
that can be further refined and demonstrated in
- Expand direct household income assistance and move
at both the federal and state level toward a universal
- Expand the use of federal and state housing vouchers
and guarantee housing assistance for all who need it.
* 2.8x for Chelsea, 2.6x for Lawrence (the regional cumulative
case average since Jan. 2020 is 76 cases per 1,000).
The pandemic showed how effectively state and local
government and nonprofit partners can mobilize in the
face of a crisis. The Commonwealth’s Eviction Diversion
Initiative, which followed a comprehensive state eviction
ban, has kept people housed and virtually eliminated
evictions for nonpayment of rent since the crisis began.
That effort began with a nearly tenfold increase in state-funded
emergency rental assistance (ERA) and close coordination
with the courts. It was reinforced by more than
$700 million in federal ERA and tens of millions of dollars
in locally funded emergency rental assistance funds serving
more than 80 cities and towns. Much more work
remains to ensure that emergency federal rental assistance
and homeowner assistance reaches all the households
who are qualified, particularly among marginalized
neighborhoods and populations.
Those pandemic-related emergency supports and interim
legal protections are scheduled to come to an end, and
policymakers need to consider which of those successful
interventions should be made permanent.
Disburse federal funds dedicated to housing stability
as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Continue to fund Rental Assistance for Families
in Transition (RAFT) and other rental assistance
programs beyond the pandemic at sufficient levels to
- Simplify the application process and expand delivery
channels for rental assistance.
- Continue new court procedures centered on mediation
and eviction prevention even after the current crisis
and state of emergency.
- Create new upstream interventions to provide mediation and rental assistance earlier in the eviction process.
- Improve data collection and transparency for local rental assistance efforts.
Housing Supply and Sustainability
Inadequate housing production and the gap between
wages and housing costs remain as the region’s largest
and most pressing housing challenges. Against an overall
decline, some rents in Greater Boston have increased
during the pandemic, home prices have taken off, and
vacancies and homes available for purchase are at record
lows. Some of the largest rent increases have been in
Gateway Cities such as Lowell, Salem and Lynn. While a
few local markets have softened, such as student housing
and high-end downtown rentals in the city of Boston,
there is little indication that supply has caught up with
On the positive side, new state zoning laws adopted
earlier this year are breaking down barriers to new housing.
The Governor’s Housing Choice bill, a requirement
that communities served by the MBTA adopt local zoning
to allow multifamily housing, and curbs on frivolous
abutter appeals that stymie affordable housing construction
are the most significant steps to increase housing
production in nearly a half-century. It will take political
will and hard work to ensure that these new laws are
The resilience of transit ridership on certain MBTA bus
and subway routes during the depths of the state’s lockdown
also provides a roadmap for transit-oriented
development (TOD) in the region. The implementation
of a comprehensive state TOD strategy, supported by a
$50 million authorization in the state’s most recent economic
development bond bill, has potential to promote racial equity, reduce overcrowding and improve the quality of
life for essential workers and the entire region. That strategy
must be informed by the still-evolving geography of
housing demand. The ability of hundreds of thousands of
people to successfully work from home, and the likelihood
of hybrid work arrangements continuing for some after
the pandemic, has opened many new possibilities for
the future growth of Greater Boston. Implementation
of the MBTA’s regional rail initiative, with frequent bidirectional
service on the existing commuter rail system,
could also promote additional urban hubs outside the
inner core, expand access to lower-cost housing markets,
and encourage housing and economic development in
- Build on recent legislative momentum around zoning
and housing production by legalizing small-scale
multifamily housing and expanding the mandate
for multifamily zoning in MBTA communities.
- Improve the quality and frequency of transit service,
both to better serve transit-dependent populations
and to better support new or planned housing
- Advance housing equity by making local inclusionary
zoning policies more universal and more effective
and by advancing state and local policies that limit
- Advance building techniques and strategies with
great potential to reduce housing production costs.