Access to stable, affordable housing is a basic human need and right. But that right is increasingly out of reach for residents across Massachusetts. Almost half of renters in Greater Boston spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. About a quarter of Black and Latino renters spend more than half of their income on it. The cost of living here, whether for renters or home buyers, is unsustainable, as Boston and surrounding communities continue to rise to the top of the list for most expensive places to live in the country.
This crisis risks destroying much of what makes Massachusetts successful. Boston is experiencing tremendous economic growth. But this momentum will disappear if we do nothing to prevent hard-working residents from leaving the state for more affordable housing options elsewhere.
I think of a Puerto Rican couple I met through my work in community development. They had made Boston their home as young professionals in health care and higher education — two of our city’s banner industries — but quickly realized that their dollars could stretch further by accepting jobs in Austin, Texas. There, they found a much larger apartment for lower rent — which meant they could achieve their goals of saving to become homeowners and building generational wealth. They couldn’t see how that would have been possible for them here.
Massachusetts has some of the best academic institutions and innovative companies in the world. How can we expect our talented, diverse pool of graduates and workers to remain here when we cannot promise them a reasonable cost of living and a stable place to live?
While the city and state have made some progress in housing production over the past few years, supply continues to fall far behind demand. The crisis has multiple causes, including rising inflation, construction and labor costs, and exclusionary zoning policies in municipalities across the Commonwealth, which are empowered by NIMBYism. For example, neighbors in Barnstable are fighting to preserve 40 acres of an underutilized Hyannis golf course, rather than create new housing opportunities.
The housing crisis is felt acutely within low-income Black and Latino populations. Unattainable rents often force low-income families into homes that are too small for them. The lack of affordable, right-sized housing options results in overcrowding, which has tremendous negative health and safety implications. The search for affordable homes also pushes Black and Latino families into poorer, segregated communities where fundamental resources, neighborhood safety, good school systems, public transit, and open spaces are less accessible.
There is no single solution to the housing crisis, but with a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach, we can fix this problem. As a member of Governor-elect Maura Healey’s Affordable, Abundant Housing transition committee, I’m hopeful that new leadership offers new opportunities.
There have been valuable first steps, such as the Healey-Driscoll administration’s promise to appoint a secretary of housing. By elevating housing to a Cabinet position, the new governor is putting it on par with other important economic drivers, such as climate and transportation.
In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu has already increased the inclusionary development policy—which requires residential developers to create a certain percentage of low-income housing units on- or off-site — from 13 percent to 17 percent. She also increased linkage fees, which require large-scale commercial developments to contribute money to a fund for affordable housing and workforce development.
But there’s much more to do. First, while government oversight is crucial to producing high-quality developments, we must streamline bureaucratic processes at the municipal level. We no longer have time to wait years for the approval of new housing projects, which can be stalled by a city’s lengthy permitting process, requiring countless regulatory meetings over years. Enacting new, simplified methods would speed up production of housing.
At the state level, the Healey-Driscoll administration should use the Commonwealth’s operating and capital budgets to fund the production of affordable rental and homeownership developments. But that won’t be enough. To create additional sustainable funding streams, we should increase the deeds excise tax, which taxes real estate transfers. The proposed Housing and Environment Revenue Opportunities (HERO) legislation in Massachusetts would double that tax and generate approximately $150 million in new revenue for affordable housing per year.
We should also use money from President Biden’s 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which provided pandemic relief to states, to support Massachusetts’ housing agenda. These funds can finance the development of income-restricted housing and provide financial assistance for first-time home buyers. Lastly, we must work with municipalities, through financial incentives and grants, to stimulate affordable housing production near MBTA stops and across the state.
Our housing challenge is substantial, but the ask is simple. Across the Commonwealth, we want to provide stable living environments for families, within stable communities where they can have more opportunity. We can fix it, but we must act now.
Dr. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado is chief executive officer of nonprofit affordable housing developer IBA – Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción. She is serving on Maura Healey’s Affordable, Abundant Housing transition committee. Send comments to email@example.com.