Christopher Norris

The Baker Administration recently introduced legislation to help address the commonwealth’s housing crisis. Although it appropriately identifies zoning reform as a priority, a key element is missing: specific focus on families with lowest incomes. 

The high cost of rent is a barrier at all income levels. The situation is particularly acute for families whose incomes are less than $29,150  the threshold for a family of three to be determined “extremely low income” in the Boston region. High housing costs often force a decision between providing food and health care and paying rent. 

There is a perception that families with low incomes can depend upon voucher programs like Section 8 to help. However, in Massachusetts there are 100,000 families waiting for a state-administered voucher. The wait exceeds 10 years in some areas. Only 25 percent of those eligible for federal housing support receive it. Furthermore, family homelessness in Massachusetts has continued to climb. From 1,000 families subsisting in shelters 20 years ago to 3,500 families today, the link between expensive housing and homelessness is unmistakable. 

Status Quo Leaves Some Behind 

The status quo is not effectively serving our lowest income households. Clearly, families cannot live in homes that do not exist, and many cannot afford to live in homes with market rents.  

Housing production in Massachusetts has fallen behind the current need, due in large part to local zoning laws. An Act to Promote Housing Choices will make it easier for cities and towns that choose to do so to tackle the lack of housing inventory. Unfortunately, history shows that not every municipality wants more housing, children or people who are different from the current residents moving to their community. 

In his book “Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein points out that “numerous white suburbs in towns across the country have adopted exclusionary zoning ordinances to prevent low-income families from residing in their midst.” And, he recognizes that in certain cases municipalities have “promote[d] zoning ordinances to reserve middle-class neighborhoods for single-family homes that lower-income families of all races could not afford.” 

We have finite room to grow, and every lot developed with a market rate apartment eliminates the opportunity to develop one that is affordable to residents with extremely low incomes. 

The Housing Choices bill is just one piece of a very large puzzle. Here are five additional pieces that could help. 

  1. Set a goal. How much extra low-income household housing is needed and what are we willing to produce? There are goals for overall housing production, but there is no statewide housing production goal for families at the lowest income level. What gets measured gets done. 
  2. Continue to increase the supply of state vouchers using the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. The existing 8,300 vouchers provide the subsidy owners need to cover the difference between what tenants can afford and their expenses. Vouchers are one of very few options for families with extremely low incomes. The state should continue its recent commitment to invest in this program. 
  3. Require every community to identify multifamily housing zones as of right. Local and regional zoning is a complicated endeavor hampered by considerations regarding infrastructure, traffic and quality of life. The economic health of the commonwealth means that all communities should permit multifamily housing in a manner consistent with their unique characteristics. 
  4. Mandate inclusionary zoning with the majority of affordable housing on site. On-site construction of affordable housing provides diverse living options for families, and it also creates the housing in real time. Payments for off-site affordable housing are beneficial in certain circumstances but often do not cover the full costs of construction, and construction often takes many years. 
  5. Track what is being built, where it is being built, and who can afford it. The corollary to setting a goal is tracking progress and comparing it against the desired result. There have been housing policies enacted that have not yielded what was intended. We should gather the data and address policies that do not work. 

The commonwealth has a housing shortage. Making it easier to rezone for housing is a necessary step, but it cannot be the only step. Additional initiatives that intentionally include affordability provisions, with targets for deeper subsidies for families with the lowest incomes are crucial, as are assurances that every community across the commonwealth does its part. 

Christopher Norris is executive director of Metro Housing|Boston. 

Five Easy Pieces to Fix the Housing Crisis

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min