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The Argument: Should Massachusetts significantly expand construction of public housing?

Read two views and vote in our online poll below.

The Acadia at 242 Spencer, a newer affordable housing development in Chelsea.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff


Rachel Heller

Chief executive officer, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association; Belmont resident

Rachel Heller Leise Jones

Massachusetts is one of four states with state-funded public housing, comprising 43,000 homes in 242 communities. These homes provide more than 70,000 people with extremely low incomes the solid base we all need to thrive.

To meet our collective need for more homes, we must keep the public housing we have — and greatly expand public housing and the overall number of homes affordable to people with extremely low incomes.

Public housing provides more than homes, fostering neighborhoods where residents form networks and support systems. As Olivia Richard, a board member of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association and the Boston Center for Independent Living, said, “Public housing provides a safe, affordable, and dignified place to call home. For disabled people like myself, it is the safety net we turn to when faced with homelessness or institutionalization in a nursing home.”

Residents contribute so much to their communities. Annette Duke of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute has seen people “start fresh produce markets in their neighborhoods, develop programs to help young people study, help maintenance workers keep their developments clean, and train and support each other day and night to advocate for what their communities need.”


Today, about 150,000 people in the state are on wait lists, hoping to move into homes with rents based on their incomes. In most Massachusetts communities, only-single family homes can be created without extensive approval processes. With such constraints, prices and rents continue to rise far beyond reach for people with low incomes.

Donna Brown-Rego, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, said, “The impact of soaring housing prices falls disproportionately on the populations served by local housing authorities — seniors, families, veterans, and the disabled with extremely low incomes. No other housing providers do what housing authorities do at funding levels that have been inadequate for decades. Programs operated and services provided by local housing authorities are the most cost-effective solution for this population in need.”


As Massachusetts strives to stabilize home prices and rents by creating 200,000 homes this decade, preserving and expanding our public housing is critical. Legislation adopted in 2022 will help make this easier. Now, we need to increase funding for maintenance and redevelopment and to ensure tenant rights throughout the process. We can’t afford to lose a single affordable home. Public housing is part of the solution.


Howard Husock

Senior fellow, American Enterprise Institute; author of “The Poor Side of Town: And Why We Need It”; former Brookline Town Meeting member

Howard Husock

The siren song of public housing, first heard in the 1930s, is back in Massachusetts. It promises housing without profits will serve the poor better than the private market. But examination of its record, in Boston and nationally, should give pause to those who care about the poor, especially low-income African-Americans.

That record includes public housing’s adverse impact on neighborhoods. In Boston and across the country, vibrant working class communities and their institutions were cleared for public housing — as in Roxbury’s Washington Park, where 2,600 families were forced to move to make way for an urban renewal project from 1963 to 1975.

Crucially, the superficial benevolence of fixed, low rents overlooks the fact that it replaces the chance for ownership. It’s no coincidence that Blacks — historically over-represented in a segregated system (36 percent of Boston public housing today in a city that’s 24.5 percent Black) — trail whites in housing wealth. Owning one’s home and land, however modest, is far better —offering the path to upward mobility.


In contrast, public housing can be a dependency trap. The average Boston public housing tenant has lived in the projects for 13 years. Low rents encourage inefficient use of units. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that 14 percent of Boston public units have empty bedrooms.

Nor has management or maintenance by government proven easy. The Boston Housing Authority had to operate under receivership from 1979 to 1990. The BHA has estimated it needs $137 million in capital improvements over the next few years, including new roofs, full new building exteriors, and security cameras. The original public housing formula — in which rents would cover expenses — has not stood the test of time. Government does many things well but real estate management is not one of them.

New units will be attractive at first. But it is unlikely they will dent the Bay State’s housing affordability problem. Tax-subsidized housing is costly; the state has had to set a $250,000 per unit limit for Boston-area developments receiving tax credits. New public housing will be costly; few will be served.

The private market has been failing the Bay State because it has been suppressed by large-lot and single-family zoning strictures. The time-tested route to affordability — exemplified by the three-decker house — is that of small homes on small lots. Public housing has been tried and has failed.


As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.