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Communities beg for a new tool in the housing toolbox

Real estate transfer tax could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid.

Boston’s transfer tax proposal would impose a fee of “up to 2 percent” (to be paid by the seller) on real estate transfers above $2 million.phonlamaiphoto/Adobe

There was a time when the housing crunch in Massachusetts was most obvious in its tonier resort communities — places where teachers or nurses or restaurant workers couldn’t find affordable year-round housing.

Today the crunch — left to grow — has become a crisis. And it’s not just a problem on Cape Cod or Nantucket or in the Berkshires. Faced with the spiraling cost of market-rate housing, Boston and Somerville have also been struggling for years to provide more subsidized, income-restricted affordable housing and to find funds to maintain existing affordable housing stock.

At least part of the solution can be found in allowing communities to levy a real estate transfer tax on high-value properties and devote that money to building more subsidized housing.


“It’s a no-brainer tool we can put in the toolbox to address the housing crisis,” said Kathleen Patrón, executive director of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which organized an event Monday night aimed at focusing attention on several pieces of legislation to deal with the housing crisis, including a statewide local option transfer tax.

The event brought together not just housing advocates and political leaders, like Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, but labor and business leaders, including a representative from Mass General Brigham, which has long supported the concept of a transfer tax as a way to support struggling low-income patients and a way to help with staffing challenges in places like Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

This year more than a dozen communities have filed their own home rule petitions seeking to impose a transfer tax. Boston is one of them, with the Wu administration filing a proposal similar to that filed by then-Mayor Marty Walsh. Had the Legislature seen fit to approve the measure back then, Boston would have realized some $100 million in 2021 and at least $60 million in 2022, according to city officials.


Now, anything that adds to the overall cost of housing — as this tax would, albeit only at the very high end — should be greeted with caution. But at least in Boston’s case, the proposed tax carefully targets high-value properties and is unlikely to affect many multifamily units.

Boston’s bill would impose a fee of “up to 2 percent” (to be paid by the seller) on real estate transfers above $2 million. Some transactions, like those to family members, would be exempt.

Other communities have asked to be able to impose fees between 0.5 percent and 2 percent. And the list of those looking to turn lucrative sales into subsidized housing opportunities continues to grow. In addition to Boston, the communities of Arlington, Brookline, Cambridge, Chatham, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Provincetown, Somerville, and Wellfleet have filed home rule petitions.

Legislation filed by Representative Michael Connolly and Senator Joanne M. Comerford would allow any community to impose a fee between 0.5 percent and 2 percent on transactions above $1 million.

Thus far the Legislature has managed to ignore all of the proposals; none have even gotten a hearing, which sadly follows a pattern that dates back — in some cases — more than a decade. (Provincetown has been filing its local option petition since 2011.) Real estate interests, including realtors, who oppose the idea, remain a powerful force on Beacon Hill.


In the intervening decade, the housing crisis has only gotten worse, and local leaders, who remain ready and willing to take the political heat for imposing the tax, have been ignored at the State House.

The arrival of a Democratic governor — who appointed the state’s first Cabinet-level Housing secretary and recently filed a capital budget that includes a $1.5 billion commitment to new affordable housing — has given proponents of the transfer tax a reason to hope. Just maybe this will be the year lawmakers are forced to act.

But Governor Maura Healey hasn’t filed her own bill on the transfer tax or offered support for a statewide local option bill.

A spokesperson for the governor said, “The governor and lieutenant governor support communities enacting local solutions to their housing challenges, which may include real estate transfer fees. They will review any legislation that reaches the governor’s desk.”

A bit more of a push from the Corner Office wouldn’t hurt. And at the very least, communities like Boston that are begging for the power to help solve their own housing affordability crises should get it from a Legislature that has too long ignored their needs.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.