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Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2019

Supply, Demand and the Challenge of Local Control

June 26, 2019

Read the 2019 Housing Report Card

Hundreds of people packed the Edgerley Center for Civic Leadership on June 26 for the the highly-anticipated Greater Boston Housing Report Card 2019: Supply, Demand and the Challenge of Local Control.  For the 2019 report, the 16th in the long series,a research team from the Dukakis Center, Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the UMass Donahue Institute and Boston Indicators, looked at the potential drivers of Greater Boston's challenging housing market. Then, looking more deeply at the repercussions beyond high prices and short supply, they examined challenging issues such as the impact of “home rule” on racial segregation.

Alicia Modestino
Alicia Modestino presents the findings

Lead author Alicia Sasser Modestino, Associate Professor at Northeastern Uniersity’s School of Public Policy & Urban Affairs and Department of Economics, and Associate Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, shared top level findings with the 350 forum attendees and livestream audience. If we maintain the rate of development from 2017 (a pretty good year) regionwide, we have a hope of barely meeting the projected housing needs for 2030. But that appears a very iffy if. Additionally, mere quantity of development may not solve the housing crisis. More units available at a variety of price points in a variety of settings are needed to meet demand and reduce the extreme local housing cost burden – which grows heaviest for those lower on the income scale. Researchers noted that “home rule,” the strong local control municipalities have regarding zoning and development, has enabled towns to drag their feet on meeting state-established levels of affordable or rental units. That slows development and potentially extends the legacy of racial segregation established by earlier outright discriminatory practices.

In other words, redlining may be illegal now, but little is happening to break down the effects it has left.

Soni Gupta
Boston Foundation Director of Housing and Neighborhoods Soni Gupta explains a point as Arlington, MA planning director Jennifer Raitt (left) listens 

The study found correlations between home rule, housing production and residential racial segregation, but more data are needed to be able to tease out the real relationships among the many factors those encompass, and use that understanding to drive action. “This is a living, breathing attempt to assemble accurate data, and we know it’s changing even as we speak,” said moderator and Boston Foundation Director of Housing and Neighborhoods Soni Gupta. She urged the audience: “Please look at your town’s data and let us know.”

The report presentation sparked a solutions-oriented conversation among panelists—housing leaders representing gateway, suburban and inner core municipalities. Their experiences reflect the nuanced ways the report’s findings are playing out on the ground in the Greater Boston region.

For example, Teronda Ellis, Real Estate Director at the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation, said, “In the ‘80s and ‘90s when I was at the Fair Housing Commission, you’d have someone walk in and say, ‘I applied for this apartment where rents were within reach… and the landlord said X and Y and I wonder was that discrimination?’ We don’t have conversations anymore about whether there’s a rent that is affordable, or seeing an ad and calling the landlord. From a fair housing standpoint, prices have effectively eradiated that conversation, period. Now it’s become: ‘Am I eligible for a (Low Income Housing Tax Credit) unit?’ For very low-income people trying to find their footing, the only question is ‘When is that lottery going to become available?’”

Crighton Joseph and Ellis
The Mass. Senate Housing Committee Chair Sen. Brendan Crighton (left) and JPNDC Real Estate Direcotr Teronda Ellis (right) listen as Cambridge Neighborhood Planner Wendell Jospeh makes a point 

The Town of Arlington’s Director, Department of Planning & Community Development Jennifer Raitt shared Ellis’s view that “every unit is a win.” Part of the trouble with home rule, she pointed out, is that the public hearing process shaping municipal decisions is distinctly twentieth-century and inhibits who participates. She and fellow panelists were in favor of mixing up the process. “Meetings are public hearings,” Raitt explained. “It’s not really a conversation. We need to hear more stories from new people, who can share experiences across the spectrum, in terms of housing choice, as part of a public, participatory process. It has to happen outside of the typical community forum of meeting rooms and hearings.” City of Cambridge Neighborhood Planner Wendell Joseph added, “It is important to bring in lots of folks. You can’t have an outcome planned in mind and look for the folks to support that. We have to call people in, willing to accept that what they want may not be what you had in mind. Create an environment where people feel comfortable telling their story and letting that community literacy inform what the process is.”

Well-steeped in process himself, State Senator Brendan Crighton observed that municipal leaders often hear most from motivated anti-development participants, which may explain why more than half of the municipalities in the Commonwealth haven’t produced any multifamily units in the last decade. “Having such projects by right in proximity to mass transit is key,” said Chrighton, who strongly supports the Governor’s Housing Choice bill. “It would also help get cars off the road and ease the transportation crisis. We have to reassure municipalities that transit-oriented development will actually make their town better, and the usual worries about traffic or school costs are offset by benefits. It’s really hard for municipal leaders, pulled in a million different directions, but having more data will help them.”

Beyond preserving existing units, mixing up the public process and focusing on transit-oriented development, the panelists from their respective vantage points all emphasized a need to return to the spirit of the law—not just the letter of it—regarding fair and affordable housing. “Maybe it’s time to have a freshening up of the fair housing law,” Ellis said. “It did do a lot to open up communities. How do we … have another look at that and see how it can address today’sfair housing issues?” Looming among those is the thorny issue of gentrification, or as Joseph termed it, quoting the book How to Kill a City, “capital induced trauma.” He noted, “We have talked about housing and transit at the same time. Addressing the issue of capital also has to be dealt with at the same time. We know that access to capital is uneven.” 

Local issues can get overwhelmed in our national political climate, but the panel members called for, and model, persistence. As Arlington’s Raitt said, “A lot of people talk about unintended consequence of doing things. There are also unintended consequences of doing nothing. If we keep doing nothing or just the status quo, it won’t get us where we need to be in the future.”