It’s no secret that Massachusetts is facing a housing crisis. There isn’t enough housing being built, and costs have put both homeownership and access to decent rental housing beyond the reach of many. The result? Working families are forced to spend more than a third of their income on rent, with young families in particular priced out of both the rental and homeownership markets altogether. Low-income people are forced to move farther away from their jobs, and many young people are forced to leave the state and find a place which combines decent affordable housing with job opportunities.
The housing crisis also threatens the state economy. With remote and hybrid employment, businesses today have more flexibility when choosing where to locate or expand. And many of those alternative places — like Raleigh, N.C., and Austin, Texas — have been building housing at a record pace.
This housing crisis has been coming to a boil for at least three decades. Fifty years ago, the state produced 30,000 new units every year, and housing costs were about the same as the national average. Over the past few decades, the state produced barely half that number while the population increased. And last year, the state did even worse. New housing permits in the Boston region fell by more than 60 percent in April from a year earlier — from 1,675 to 644.
The state seems to be at an inflection point where almost everyone is in agreement that housing is an existential crisis. If we — government, business, developers, communities, concerned citizens — don’t solve this problem now, the very future of the Commonwealth as we know it is in serious jeopardy.
What Massachusetts needs is its own moon shot.
The barriers to success are formidable: rising interest rates, stubborn inflation, a doubling of mortgage costs, skittish investors, soft debt markets, reluctant suburbs, stringent building codes, and economic uncertainty.
In fairness, some new approaches are being taken and look promising, including the MBTA Communities law, which requires communities served by public transit to zone for multifamily housing, and the ability of cities and towns to change zoning laws with a simple majority vote. The Healey administration has made housing its number one priority, beginning with the creation of a housing secretary. But even they agree more is needed and are encouraging us to think big.
When President John Kennedy announced his own moon shot in 1961 — the goal to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth within a decade — the move was driven by the Soviets putting Sputnik into space. It was an existential moment for America, and we responded with creativity and commitment that represented not only a whole of government approach but also a whole of society commitment.
The state should launch its own moon shot to tackle the housing crisis with a similarly passionate and effective whole-of-government and whole-of-the-Commonwealth approach that puts the burden and the responsibility not only on government but on all of us as concerned citizens.
We need to reframe the housing crisis from an us-versus-them struggle over local zoning and affordable housing into a rallying cry to create and build the Massachusetts we know we all need for the future. We all need to consider that just as with Kennedy’s improbable moon shot, we simply can’t afford to fail.
Fifteen years ago, Massachusetts was determined to become the life sciences hub of the world. Then-Governor Deval Patrick proposed a $1 billion bond bill; industry and government formed a close-knit and respectful partnership; and academics became deeply involved. Massachusetts today houses R&D facilities for 18 of the top 20 bio-pharmaceutical companies in the world.
We know how to do this and how to succeed when we are intentional, focused, and committed.
Let’s dust off that model and get equally serious about solving our housing crisis. Let’s form a public/private/community partnership that engages all the elements of our Commonwealth in solving a problem that all of us share. Let’s mount a public service campaign that gets us all on the same page and pulling in the same direction. We need to move from pointing fingers and the depressing acrimony that characterizes the current situation toward an approach that brings us together in a creative collaboration that taps the best of our instincts and imaginations. Can building 250,000 new housing units by 2030 really be more difficult than it was to land a man on the moon?
We know a lot of what is necessary — by way of carrots and sticks, financial incentives and painful penalties, and creative new approaches to financing — to overcome NIMBYism and to incentivize new construction, develop state-owned properties, expand home ownership for people of color, and to create multifamily projects that help anchor downtowns in Gateway Cities. We also need to think bigger and allow for entirely new ideas and experiments to flourish.
Many of us want to help close the racial wealth gap; provide a healthy start for young children, better schools, and more economic opportunities for those who have been marginalized; and strengthen communities threatened by climate change. The hard reality is that we can’t make any sustained progress on any of these issues unless and until we start providing housing that is plentiful and affordable.
Housing is the lynchpin that unlocks and enables all the rest. Let’s not wait another day to plant the seeds of our future by tackling this challenge in new ways with new voices and with all of us engaged in creating the solutions that we desperately need.
Ira A. Jackson is a cofounder of The Civic Action Project and a research fellow in the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School.