Add Senator Elizabeth Warren to the growing list of Washington Democrats urging federal help to tackle a housing crunch that’s affecting Greater Boston and many other places across the United States.
The Massachusetts Democrat on Thursday proposed a nearly $500 billion package of legislation that she said would help fund 3 million new homes nationwide, new supply that could help reduce rents for lower- and middle-class families by 10 percent.
“The cost of housing is squeezing American families in communities all across the country — rural, suburban, urban — whether they’re struggling to pay rent or trying to buy a home,” Warren said in a statement. “It’s time to stop nibbling around the edges and, instead, pass this big, bold proposal to solve our housing crisis and take steps to address the legacy of housing discrimination.”
The plan, dubbed the American Housing and Mobility Act, is cosponsored by Democratic Senators Edward Markey and Bernie Sanders, among others, and is supported by an array of housing groups and the mayors of most of Massachusetts’ larger cities. It would expand several programs that fund affordable housing, chiefly the Housing Trust Fund, which finances development for lower-income households.
It would also provide down payment assistance to first-time home buyers in urban neighborhoods where banks historically declined to lend — a tactic known as “redlining.” Many of those neighborhoods still have low homeownership rates. The bill also would set up $10 billion in grants for municipalities that loosen zoning laws to enable more affordable housing or protect tenants from displacement.
Those last two measures aim to tackle longstanding patterns of housing segregation in places such as Greater Boston, where white families are roughly twice as likely to own a home as Black families.
Many suburban towns hinder development of multifamily homes by enacting restrictive zoning rules, resulting in a concentration of new housing in a relatively low number of municipalities across the region. Those rules, analysts say, contribute to sky-high housing costs and effectively block some people from buying homes in many Boston-area suburbs.
“The legacy of housing discrimination is apparent in many of our cities, where communities of color have routinely been denied the opportunity to build wealth,” wrote the mayors of 27 Massachusetts cities, including Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, in a letter supporting the bill. “Communities lack the tools they need to adequately address this housing crisis and invite smart, sound investments in our neighborhoods.”
The plan largely echoes a bill Warren filed in 2019, which went nowhere in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. This time around, with a slim Democratic majority in the Senate and President Biden in the White House, it could fare better, or influence other bills that aim to tackle many of the same issues. A companion bill was also filed in the House.
The Biden administration’s $2 billion infrastructure package includes some of the same elements as Warren’s plan, such as $5 billion in grants to loosen zoning. And a so-called Green New Deal for Public Housing, filed this week by Sanders and Democratic New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, calls for modernizing about a million public housing units across the country.
At nearly $500 billion over 10 years, Warren’s housing plan could face pushback from lawmakers concerned about the mounting cost of COVID-19 economic relief spending and other broad economic bills being pushed in the early months of the Biden administration. Warren’s office said the housing package could be paid for by ending George W. Bush-era cuts to the estate tax paid by some people, and perhaps increasing rates for wealthier families.