Sometimes, perfect jobs slip away. Which is what happened to Suzanne Scallion.
Scallion had a job she loved, in a town she loved. But it wasn’t enough. She needed somewhere to live. In April, Scallion announced she would step down as superintendent of Provincetown Schools, after nearly three years in the role.
Scallion rented for two of the winters that she worked in Provincetown, and lived in her RV for two summers. The rest of the time, she commuted from Yarmouth, more than an hour’s drive each way.
“My dream was that I would one day live in Provincetown,” Scallion said, “but clearly there’s a crisis in the community around housing and I was impacted by it.”
And she’s got lots of company. In communities across the state, there are tens of thousands of stories that echo Scallion’s — from teachers, firefighters, lab managers, engineers, nurses, and pretty much every other profession you can imagine.
Boston University political science professor Katherine Einstein told me that when her department searches for a new professor, house prices always come up. “And for folks who make very good — but not biotech executive — salaries at Boston University, they can’t afford to buy what they could in Nashville or in Pittsburgh or in some other cities that are attractive places to live that do not have quite as hot a housing market.”
Indeed, median prices are so high in Massachusetts that only Hawaii and California currently outpace us. In some towns, the increases are shocking — prices in Somerville, for example, spiked an average of 56 percent between 2010 and 2020.
I’ve written before about how our reluctance to build sufficient housing creates an enormous racial divide — ironic in a state where there’s a lot of discussion about equity but little action around perhaps the single most significant component of wealth: home ownership.
But there’s another, even broader, issue here. The cost of housing may threaten the economic future of Massachusetts.
We are facing a potential “brain drain,” says Michael Goodman, a professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In this hub of intellectual firepower, our most potent natural resource isn’t land or oil; it’s talented people. And when they can’t afford to live in the state, that’s a problem.
Local business groups have been wringing their hands about the cost of housing for years, but pandemic-fueled price surges may have brought us to a breaking point.
And not one person I spoke with believed rising mortgage rates would significantly deflate prices. Fundamentally, they agreed, we have way too little housing. It’s a classic case of supply and demand, according to Einstein.
Goodman notes that there are now more open jobs in Massachusetts than there are people to fill them. Domestic and international migration have slowed, and “in 2020, for the first time that I’m aware of, there were more deaths than births in Massachusetts.”
He says that Cape Cod — where Scallion stepped down from her position — is the “canary in the coal mine.”
JD Chesloff, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, which represents executives, says concerns about housing are ubiquitous. It’s “what I hear from members across industry, across regions of the Commonwealth, and across employers. Everyone is struggling with this.” When I pressed him on which sectors are feeling the pain most acutely, he pushed back. The problem is too widespread, he said, to tie it to certain industries.
When the roundtable surveyed members this year, they found the single biggest reason companies gave for reducing their footprint in Massachusetts was the “cost of living.”
The roundtable’s report notes that local companies are increasingly likely to hire out-of-state workers to work remotely. Since COVID, the number of Massachusetts firms with more than 10 percent of their workforce living (and working) out of state has nearly tripled.
And it’s easy to see why. Almost everyone has friends and neighbors who’ve decamped to cheaper states, where they could afford roomy homes and backyards for their kids.
Plenty of us have met young people who hoped to stay in Boston after college, perhaps to remain near family. But they couldn’t make it work. And then there are teachers, police officers, and chefs who spend three hours a day in the car, trying to hold on to jobs they love.
A real estate developer told me he asks various people, like nurses at Mass General Hospital, where they’re commuting from. And they’ll say things like: “Well, I live in Rockingham [County], New Hampshire . . . I come to work at 5 a.m.”
The developer, who requested anonymity because he regularly appears in front of town boards to get building projects approved, told me the problem is far, far worse than people understand.
“Most of the Greater Boston communities just don’t want housing,” he said. Residents often resist more kids in the schools, more pressure on public resources, more traffic. Many towns, he says, have sought to reduce the number of residential units that developers can put in building projects, instead preferring lab and retail space.
He worries that we’re building homes so slowly, and have been for so long, that even a modest ramp-up in units will do little to address the scale of the problem. And affordable housing regulations have little impact, if a town is willing to endlessly litigate, or to incur whatever penalties or fines might come their way. Indeed, he’s come to believe that a massive expansion of public transportation may be the only viable option remaining.
But the problem that Massachusetts faces is not a problem for everyone.
If you’re a homeowner, especially in a single-family home in a town close to Boston, the last few decades have paid enormous dividends.
“There are winners and losers created by this situation,” Goodman says. “But I do think that the fact that the winners are disproportionately older, and the losers are disproportionately younger, really kind of creates a headwind for trying to reverse this demographic curse, if you will, and make it possible for younger people and younger families to make a life for themselves here in Massachusetts.”
Concern over this age divide was echoed by many people I spoke with.
Katherine Einstein and her BU colleague Maxwell Palmer have noted that when it comes to what kind of housing gets built in Massachusetts, local boards and zoning commissions wield enormous amounts of power. And in examining boards, commissions, and city government in 22 towns, they discovered that “homeowners, people over 50 years old, and long-term residents (people living in their homes more than ten years) are significantly overrepresented . . . Women and people of color are significantly underrepresented.”
Chesloff also sees the age-related divide. “The folks who generally are leaving [Massachusetts] tend to be younger in the workforce. The people who have homes here and are working here are not looking to pick up [and leave], as much as folks entering the workforce who can’t afford to start out here. Those are the ones we’re worried about.”
But will worry translate into action?
The fact that decision-making about housing is so decentralized doesn’t bode well for change, though the state does have the ability to reclaim a good deal of authority, if it wanted to.
The problem, Goodman notes, is that talking about housing is “a third rail,” so it’s hard for a politician to tackle it.
And there are two incentive systems at odds with each other. In individual towns, many well-meaning citizens want to maintain lush, expansive lawns and quaint streets. But at a state level, that urge may do considerable damage to the economy, keeping out crucial workers.
Governor Charlie Baker, who isn’t seeking reelection this year, has acknowledged that the state is sitting on an enormous, growing problem.
“The biggest headwind is our cost of housing,” he told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in March. “That is the thing that my children in particular pointed out to me, since two of three of them don’t live here anymore.”
Follow Kara Miller on Twitter @karaemiller.