Massachusetts should be a place where all residents have the opportunity to live in a welcoming community of their choice. We aren’t there – yet.
The 2022 Greater Boston Housing Report Card shows we have work ahead of us, but a better, inclusive future is within reach. That future will require leadership and a steadfast commitment to the principles of fair housing – to advance equity, opportunity and choice for all residents, particularly residents and communities of color.
Massachusetts has often been a leader on housing policy and Governor-elect Maura Healey has indicated housing is a top priority with a plan to appoint a secretary of housing to focus on solutions. To that, we would add a new, statewide Office of Fair Housing to ensure that we have an institution that can lead on creating, coordinating and enforcing equitable housing policy and practices.
Centralization Key to Coordination
To expand housing access, we need infrastructure and resources. A statewide Office of Fair Housing could set out a clear and specific fair housing agenda and provide guidance and support on how to meet this agenda. This would include all aspects of housing development, marketing and outreach, tenant selection, the housing application process for prospective residents and ongoing housing operations.
These efforts would ensure that information about housing and the pathways to access housing are shared widely and equitably and that Black and Brown families can benefit from these opportunities.
A designated fair housing office could also oversee and coordinate fair housing activities between the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the many municipalities that receive HUD funding, the attorney general’s office, civil rights groups and fair housing advocacy organizations.
The latest Greater Boston Housing Report Card also makes the case for a new position, “chief of housing data,” who would ensure information on the state’s subsidized housing stock can be comprehensively collected, analyzed and maintained. Connecting this work with the Office of Fair Housing would create stronger connections between the state’s subsidized housing and the residents who need access to it.
Currently, the Department of Housing and Community Development conducts the analysis of impediments (AI) to fair housing, a process required by HUD. The AI is a valuable opportunity to identify barriers to fair housing and to create an action plan to remove those barriers. An Office of Fair Housing could provide the leadership and accountability that ensures timely movement on the AI.
A Tool for Better Enforcement
Discrimination in housing is prevalent in many forms, which has been proven through testing and other investigative methods. However, the resources for fair housing enforcement are scarce, which results in action taken only when someone files a complaint. Penalties in discrimination cases are often minimal. The new office could proactively change how the state enforces laws against housing discrimination.
A state Office of Fair Housing could partner with incoming Attorney General Andrea Campbell to pursue cases that address segregation and housing discrimination patterns and explore remedies. In addition, this office could help to create more stringent penalties for violations of fair housing and conduct regular, more robust auditing to ensure compliance.
Currently, fair housing initiatives in Massachusetts are funded mainly by the federal government and cover only federal protected classes. With state funding, the fair housing office could build upon a pilot program launched by the state Department of Housing and Community Development to include state protected classes, such as ancestry, military status, sexual orientation, age, marital status, gender identity, source of income and genetic information.
A Source of Education and Training
Fair housing training can provide the foundational framework on which to build equitable practices. A state Office of Fair Housing could develop a comprehensive fair housing curriculum and provide training to help housing professionals, including developers, property managers, lottery administrators and resident services staff understand the history and basis for fair housing and how to comply with the requirements. Municipal officials could learn how to further fair housing in land use, planning and housing decisions.
Fair housing education must also extend to tenants and homebuyers, who must know their rights and how to report a violation when it occurs. Increasing access to the state-funded tools for housing searches, Housing Navigator and MyMassHome, are also part of ensuring choice for families and individuals across the state.
The economic development bill passed by the legislature this month includes an amendment filed by state Sen. Lydia Edwards that would fund a study on ways to affirmatively further fair housing at the state level. This study could inform the work of the Office of Fair Housing and future legislation, which will get us started on this path toward a better Massachusetts for all. With communities implementing multifamily zoning near MBTA communities and a renewed focus on production by the state, now is our time to also put fair housing into focus.
Our housing policies were intentionally built on redlining and other exclusionary tactics. We must now intentionally create inclusive pathways to housing choice in the commonwealth.
Soni Gupta is associate vice president for neighborhoods and housing at The Boston Foundation and Rachel Heller is CEO of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association.