Massachusetts’ housing crisis is indisputable. Our demand far outweighs our supply, pushing up prices. Lengthy approval processes and resistance to allowing new housing in our communities further drives up costs of housing projects – which are in turn passed on to renters and homebuyers.
The commonwealth needs at least 200,000 more homes by 2030 to keep pace with demand, according to the 2021 “Future of Work in Massachusetts” report.
We need more housing of all types, and more affordable housing in particular. To address our housing crisis, it’s critical that we have an accurate accounting of the number of affordable units we have in each community. Zoning reform issues and NIMBYism are familiar to many, but an issue that few talk about is how we actually count our affordable housing stock.
The metric that many communities use to measure their affordable housing stock is inflated – meaning communities often think they have more affordable units than they actually do. The metric is the community’s Subsidized Housing Inventory, or SHI. Chapter 40B, the state’s landmark statute to boost affordable housing availability, allows developers more flexibility in the permitting process if a municipality’s SHI is less than 10 percent of their total housing stock. A common belief is that communities that have met the 10 percent threshold have done “enough” on affordable housing.
However, housing units do not need to be affordable to be counted towards a community’s SHI. Both affordable and market-rate units inside a development that has some affordable units can count towards a community’s SHI stock. In other words, even if a community has a subsidized housing inventory of 10 percent on paper, that does not necessarily mean that 10 percent of its housing stock are affordable units.
A solution to this problem could come in the form of a regularly updated, publicly available online dashboard that shows the raw number of income-restricted (affordable) units in each municipality. By counting the real number of units, we can address the inherent political challenge that comes with some communities believing they have “too much affordable housing.”
Ultimately, housing production decisions too often depend on the politics and culture of a small vocal minority at the local level. One important way to influence that culture and local conversation is by ensuring that each community at least has an accurate count of how many affordable units really exist – instead of an inflated number that fuels NIMBY arguments.
Massachusetts is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. It is more important than ever to have an accurate understanding of our affordable housing stock. As we strive to reform harmful zoning practices and boost our supply of all types of housing, an updated SHI dashboard should be considered as part of the solution.
State Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, represents the 3rd Essex district in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.