New Census data released in March highlighted what so many renters and would-be homebuyers across the commonwealth have struggled with for years: With a median home value at $400,000 our state is the third most expensive housing market in the country. Massachusetts renters are also facing staggering costs, paying an average of $1,336 a month in rent – the sixth highest rents in the country and a 33 percent increase since 2010. A majority of the state’s lowest income households, and nearly a quarter of middle-income households, are defined as severely cost-burdened, spending more than 50 percent of their paychecks on rent.
This latest data likely isn’t a surprise to my fellow business leaders who have seen firsthand how our state and economy has suffered from decades of inadequate housing production. In our work at Graffito we regularly engage with retail small business owners who are struggling to hire staff due to the high cost of housing in Greater Boston, and our partners and clients in the development community are hearing from office and lab space tenants equally challenged to attract much-needed employees. Lower-wage, service sector workers are struggling to afford rent within reasonable commuting distance of jobs they have to work in person; and would-be hires of tech and life sciences firms are finding it increasingly difficult to relocate to the Bay State.
Unhealthy, Unsustainable Market
The high cost of an increasingly limited housing stock is not sustainable for the state’s economy and well-being. If the recent data isn’t surprising, it should certainly be a call to action and advocacy for the business community to make housing affordability a priority issue in this fall’s gubernatorial election.
To maintain the globally competitive economy we’ve built over decades while striving to rebalance historic inequalities that have disproportionately burdened too many communities, we must build a housing market that is accessible and affordable to residents and workers across the state, and throughout the economy.
Since the early 2000’s, Massachusetts has been able to capitalize on smart investments in several of our state’s core and emerging industries. Higher education, healthcare, biotech and the life sciences have buoyed our economy, provided stability during times of economic volatility and even helped to speed up our recovery from both the Great Recession and the COVID-induced turbulence. In recent years the clean energy and tech sectors have flourished, bringing more growth and more jobs to Greater Boston and other key regions of the state.
But we’re rapidly approaching a dangerous tipping point where we will increasingly be unable to house the workforce needed to sustain our standard-bearer industries or foster new and emerging sectors we’ll need to rely on for sustained growth in a changing economy.
The recent “Future of Work” report commissioned by the state last year estimates that, even accounting for remote work shifts, the commonwealth will need to create 200,000 new housing units over the next decade to support our workforce. To get there, we’re going to need to be creative. And we need to start thinking of Massachusetts as one great interconnected community with a shared fate and responsibility for bringing down the costs of housing for all residents.
Go Beyond Homebuilding
Executing on the Housing Choice components of last year’s economic development bill must be a priority for our next governor. The bill’s new zoning requirements empowering MBTA communities to allow for new multifamily housing units can open up tremendous opportunities for much-needed development. It will also help alleviate the concentrated housing burden facing major urban areas and relieve some of our state’s notorious traffic congestion by making it easier for workers to commute from home to work.
At the same time, our next governor should continue to explore innovative strategies to reposition outdated real estate assets to develop additional housing. A recent study from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council analyzed 3,000 shopping centers and strip malls in Greater Boston – many of which are empty or underutilized – to assess their potential for being redeveloped into sustainable housing communities. MAPC found that converting just 10 percent of that space into mixed-use projects could lead to the creation of 124,000 homes, and a significant increase in building value and tax revenue for local communities.
But business leaders can’t only advocate for strategies focused on homebuilding. To address the affordability issue, our next governor needs to continue the critical focus on low and middle-income households. A massive affordability gap exists for middle-income housing that is resulting in working families leaving the state in search of more affordable costs of living. Increased funding of down payment assistance programs can help low and middle-income first-time home buyers regain competitive footing in our hyper-competitive market.
Massachusetts has the potential to expand the essential industries driving our economy, invest in homegrown talent to foster new industries, and capitalize on the increasingly important clean energy sector putting down roots here. But to succeed, our next governor will need to prioritize tackling our housing crisis so we can support the businesses, innovators, workforce, and communities who need to count on available, affordable homes in order to drive our long-term economic success.
Gustavo Quiroga is director of neighborhood strategy and Development at Graffito SP, and a member of the board of directors at the Alliance for Business Leadership.