On Tuesday afternoon, Boston Globe business correspondent Andrew Brinker hosted an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit focused on the housing crisis in Greater Boston.
Brinker writes frequently about state and local housing policies, the housing market, and the region’s supply shortage, focusing in particular on the suburban cities and towns that are loath to build.
He’s also a renter in Boston who knows all too well the struggle of living in a city where the market and overall housing affordability is shifting rapidly.
Below are some highlights from the Q&A, which has been condensed and edited for clarity. Or you can click here to see the entire Reddit AMA. Questions are in bold from Redditors who participated in the AMA.
How do we outlaw tenant responsibility for brokers fees?
Andrew Brinker: There was some movement on this a few years back under the Walsh Administration back in 2020, but it seems to have fizzled since. There are quite a few high-cost cities in the US that have managed to ban brokers fees, but it hasn’t quite caught on in the Northeast. They were successfully banned in New York state back in 2020, but that ban was overturned by a state judge about a month later. They haven’t taken up the issue since. To get brokers fees banned in Boston, most policymakers believe state legislation would be necessary.
Something I hear fairly often but I’ve never seen substantiated with actual numbers is that the housing supply in Boston is being gobbled up by foreign investors. How much of Boston’s as housing supply is being bought up by foreign investors? And what’s the breakdown of which countries the foreign investors are from?
AB: We do hear this fairly often when talking about housing in Boston. The reason you’ve never seen any numbers substantiating those claims is because there are a distinct lack of data on this issue to tell us how significant the problem is. There are quite a few anecdotal examples in areas of the city like East Boston.
That said, there have been huge waves of foreign investment in local housing stock in Sun Belt cities like Tampa over the last two years. And in the 2010s, investors from China were really active in Boston’s housing market. But the experts I’ve spoken to generally agree that foreign investment in housing here has cooled off substantially.
Mayor Wu’s rent control proposal recently passed in City Hall, but requires a home rule petition to pass in the state legislature. While normally home rule petitions are passed with ease given their nature, this one is much more significant to the Commonwealth, other municipalities, and state politics broadly. What are the odds this home rule petition passes with no change to Wu’s plan? What are the current discussions/news on the prospects of this Home Rule petition?
AB: It is hard to predict what will happen with the home rule petition. Here’s what I know: The Legislature has been skeptical of rent control in the past, but there is a lot more momentum among legislators for big action on housing this session, in part because Governor Maura Healey has made housing a big priority. So they may be more open to considering rent control than they’ve been in the past, and the fact that Wu’s proposal is relatively modest may help its luck. We’ll know more in the next couple of months.
What changes do you think are needed to increase the housing supply in the Boston MSA (metropolitan statistical area)?
AB: Ask any expert on this issue and they will tell you the same thing: loosen the state’s zoning rules. Massachusetts has especially restrictive zoning laws because we leave the issue up to towns, many of which drafted their rules decades ago in an era when zoning was a tool for exclusion along racial and class lines and have hardly changed them since. That means we get a lot of single family homes, when the demand in our region is largely for multifamily housing.
The idea is that if the state takes some more control here, which it has the legal authority to do, and loosens local zoning rules to allow for more multifamily development, that will help the region’s supply shortage.
That said, building market rate housing alone is not a solution. Even if we dramatically loosened zoning rules tomorrow, it would take years for the supply shortage to begin to ease. A lot of advocates and experts generally agree that, in order to keep more residents here in the short term, we need to pass stronger affordable housing laws, targeting folks in the income groups that our current affordable housing rules miss.
A lot of folks argue we also need more short-term protections for tenants as well, though that’s where experts and advocates are divided in opinion.
What can a 24 year old do to start saving for a house?
AB: It’s very difficult in Boston. I myself am around that age and struggle to put away much towards a house. Unfortunately, our housing system is so broken, that a lot of folks have more success saving money by moving out of Boston proper into a cheaper rental. But obviously, in doing that, you may end up relying on the MBTA, which is not exactly reliable.
What are the actual pros and cons of rent control? All the arguments for and against are both so confusing.
AB: I’ve been talking to a lot of landlords and developers about Wu’s proposal, and it has been interesting to hear that most are in agreement that a rent cap of CPI + 6 percent (what Wu has proposed and the City Council passed on to the Legislature last week), wouldn’t be a huge pain point for property owners. They’re more against the policy because they’re worried about the rent cap going lower. And to sum up why landlords dislike low rent caps: essentially, their concern (which has some historical evidence to back it up), is that low rent caps prevent them from being able to recoup regular maintenance and upkeep costs on their buildings. And they argue that, if property owners can’t make back money on their buildings, developers won’t want to build here, and that will drive housing production into the ground. Wu’s policy is more modest than others that have been enacted in the US, so it’s hard to know exactly how housing production will be impacted.
The other big piece of Wu’s proposal to pay attention to is the 15-year exemption for new construction. Generally speaking, most developers can make back their money and then some in 15 years.
What are online tools or resources do you know of to help people find housing?
AB: Housing Navigator is a work-in-progress site that complies available affordable housing in the region. I’m not sure many folks know about it. Useful resource.
I’m a first-time buyer that’s been looking at homes in the North Shore for the past 2 years - I’ve seen the price for an entry level move-in-ready home rise to about $800,000 for 1,500 square feet with a minimum of 3 bedrooms. While prices have cooled in other areas of the US due to rising interest rates, I haven’t seen prices drop in Greater Boston. The supply of new homes on the market has dropped substantially. How do buyers justify these prices? Is their expectation that prices will continue to rise over the next 10 years due to limited supply and global warming making other areas more difficult to live in? With the rise of remote work, I’d think it would be easier for more buyers to sprawl into cheaper markets.
AB: Unfortunately, the situation in Boston is such that prices don’t really have much of anywhere to go in the long term but up. We’ve seen some really gradual price decreases over the last few months, but that has largely been the market correcting for the pace at which prices increased in 2021.
You’re also seeing listings at high prices because the sellers who are willing to wade into the market right now may remember their neighbor selling their single-family for $900,000 last year, and want to get the same kind of return on their property.
Why do you think people a feel the need to live in the same few square miles? Can’t people live somewhere else? There just literally isn’t enough space. Look at Hong Kong. More expensive than Boston and they build housing like no tomorrow! Maybe not everyone gets to live exactly where they want.
AB: I’ll just say this. Healthy cities need people across the income and job spectrums. If those folks can’t afford to live here, not only do we risk brain drain — losing the bright minds that power our state’s education and tech sectors — but we also lose out on a whole lot more. We’ll lose the artists and creatives who make our city vibrant. And we’ll lose the workers that power restaurants, convenience stores, etc. We need folks to do those jobs, and that can’t happen unless they can afford to rent or buy a house here.
What percentage of the rentals in the area are owned by corporations?
AB: There hasn’t been a lot of substantive research done on the issue in Boston, partially because when one looks at a deed here that indicates a property is owned by an LLC, it is tricky to know whether that LLC was created by one person or by a big corporation.
Do you think the legislature or governor should do more to combat NIMBYism in local zoning. The Baker administration pushed zoning changes around MBTA stations. Have you seen any projects that have benefited from this change and do you think it was significant enough?
AB: Hard to say right now, because most deadlines for towns to make the relevant zoning changes don’t arrive until the end of this year or next year, but the law has forced a lot of towns to start talking about how they want to grow. It remains to be seen how the state will go about enforcing the law (legal action against noncompliant towns may be on the table). If every one of the 175 towns impacted by the law goes along, the zoning will be in place for hundreds of thousands of new multifamily units. Then it will be about building them.
Is the Boston housing crisis actually a nationwide housing crisis? It feels like quite a few areas all over the country are experiencing similar issues.
AB: It certainly is a national problem, but it is driven by regional housing underproduction. The federal government leaves zoning up to state and local governments, which is why you see all of these pockets of underproduction across the US.
How do you see any of this ending? Or do you think this is the new normal?
AB: Hard to say. There’s more and more political will to address the problem, and there are some US states that are having some success with boosting housing production. But it will take a sweeping effort that will probably be politically unpopular among suburbanites to dig out.
California is a good example of a state that is having some modest success. They have a significant housing crisis, but they’re beginning to chip away at it with zoning reform. They’ve banned single-family zoning and are encouraging the construction of “missing middle” housing in suburban neighborhoods.
And I also have to point out their success with Accessory Dwelling Units. CA broadly legalized ADUs a few years ago, and have seen tens of thousands build across the state since. Massachusetts, on the other hand, lets municipalities decide whether or not to allow ADUS. We’re lucky to see 100 built a year.
So there are some big tools that we aren’t utilizing. It is perhaps a question of how long it will be until we are willing to use them.
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Jenna Reyes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jennaelaney and Instagram @jennaelaney. Andrew Brinker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.