For decades, if not centuries, housing in Massachusetts communities has been defined by scarcity, exclusion, and an unwillingness to center policy in human needs. Redlining, racial covenants, underdevelopment of public transit, and prohibitions on common-sense protections for renters have compromised the foundation for a vibrant Commonwealth.
As stakeholders correct for years of inadequate and inequitable housing, we must do more than simply construct new roofs and walls. We need to legislate, produce, and preserve housing that responds to the varied needs in our neighborhoods. If we fail to do so, we will exacerbate displacement and racial segregation and further commodify our housing stock.
Today, Massachusetts’ average rents are about 50 percent higher than the national average and Boston is the second-most expensive US city to live in with average one-bedroom rents hovering around $3,000. Thousands of low-income renters who power our economy are pushed to the brink and home prices strain the limits of middle-class budgets. Even as racist and classist zoning laws have reduced opportunities for families to choose where they live, real estate speculation and price gouging have disrupted their lives.
Fortunately, opportunities exist for local and state leaders to build more equitable, diverse housing. Policy makers can guide communities with the resources and the responsibility we have to house every family. It isn’t enough just to build more housing near transit stops: every community needs to green-light multifamily housing, and the state must provide the resources to secure truly affordable development.
Given the choice, even communities that produce housing have been shown to reject affordability, allowing for new units to be overwhelmingly luxurious and unaffordable. The Commonwealth’s newest MBTA zoning policy — which mandates that cities and towns with access to public transportation allow more multifamily housing — should not only require more housing but should also establish baseline affordability goals for communities that lack inclusionary zoning, strengthen fair housing laws, and expand programs that secure long-term affordability. Massachusetts should give communities the ability to raise revenue through high-end real estate transfer fees that will finance the housing the state desperately needs.
There is no one silver bullet to help renters stay in their homes. It will take several strategies that give low-income renters power to stabilize neighborhoods and give poor people a fighting chance. Facing a displacement crisis, only made worse by the pandemic, renters need protection, predictability, and opportunities to participate in the real estate market. By enabling tenants’ first right to purchase their homes upon sale or foreclosure, funding statewide access to counsel programs, expanding the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, and preventing eviction without just cause, we can stem the tide that pushes communities apart. Some real estate interests have begun fearmongering, especially when discussing rent stabilization, without offering solutions short of removing all restrictions and building with reckless abandon. But that does not ensure people will be able to afford to live in the units, in fact it almost ensures that units sit empty and serve a portfolio for the superrich.
Finally, as the state continues to need more and more affordable units, we must protect the current stock. The Commonwealth must scale up resources to repair its aging public housing — ensuring a future for the lowest income families — and support home purchases by organizations like community land trusts as well as low-income home buyers. We can also support small landlords by providing tax credits to keep rents low and by allowing accessory dwelling units in every community.
This is how we repair and rebuild a cracked foundation for housing justice in Massachusetts: by reimagining every community as one where every individual and household has a chance to thrive.
Read more in the series: The rental question
Senator Lydia Edwards represents the Third Suffolk District in the Massachusetts Legislature and cochairs the Joint Committee on Housing.