Jennifer Gilbert

What gets measured is what gets managed. This old mantra from management theorist Peter Drucker rings true as our commonwealth and nation face a housing crisis. But the unfortunate reality for affordable housing is we haven’t done a great job measuring it, causing questions about our success in managing it.

As a step forward on both fronts, Housing Navigator Massachusetts just released dashboards with information about the statewide and town-by-town affordable rental housing supply. We show the inventory in several key metrics: where, how much (properties and units), how affordable (how the rent is determined) and for whom (age restrictions, bedroom mix and more). For the first time, this information is live and free to the public 24/7, accessible on the Our Data tab of our website.

Creating these dashboards was a four-year journey. We stitched together the many ways and places officials had tracked this inventory, fueled by optimism that with fresh information, Massachusetts can build the right buildings. Build more affordable housing, yes, and also build with more of an eye toward equity, recognition of what’s missing and considering our needs now and into the future.

The immediate reactions to our release fell into two buckets. First: “There’s even less affordable housing in Massachusetts than we thought.” Second: “These dashboards are amazing – let’s add even more information into the mix so we can do even better.”

To both, we say, “Yes!” and “So, what are we going to do about that?”

Deeper Lessons in the Data

First, the preliminary analysis that the state’s Subsidized Housing Inventory undercounts the number of affordable rental housing units grabbed the headlines.

While true, the SHI is a regulatory compliance measuring stick, not a key performance indicator. Our search tool hosts more than 30,000 visitors every month looking for affordable housing in the commonwealth. But for them, the word “affordable” has become less and less meaningful. To a layperson, affordable often means the home fits within someone’s income; for most designated affordable housing; that means a rent scaled to 30 percent of household income.

Our data shows that only 61 percent of the rentals open to families in the state are affordable in that sense. And they are a decreasing percentage of new production – as of this writing, there are eight two-bedroom apartments listed on our search tool, all outside Boston and Cambridge, with rents more than $2,000 per month. This number is below our state’s market rate, but it is also out of reach for far too many struggling households in Massachusetts.

Second, since our data release, we’ve received dozens of ideas about how to layer on more information to understand everything from the impact of exclusionary zoning to climate risk.

Our dashboards are a first iteration, and we welcome ideas for new products and partnerships. That said, a challenge in implementing many is that the commonwealth itself is not tracking the information we need to do more. With no intention of pointing fingers – anyone who has ever tried to keep a list of what’s already in their kitchen cupboard knows it’s challenging – we must prioritize and fund the unglamorous effort of careful counting and tracking if we want sound analysis to drive housing policy. Otherwise, we are falling into the trap of another management mantra: garbage in, garbage out.

The recent creation of a chief of data and research position at the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities is a great step forward. We have an opportunity to set an agenda around data collection in the commonwealth and create strategic policy around that data. At Housing Navigator Massachusetts, we are relentlessly committed to adding transparency to the critical issue of how everyone in the state finds their way home. We look forward to working with a growing ecosystem of partners who recognize data-driven policy thrives on good data.

Jennifer Gilbert is founder and executive director of Housing Navigator Massachusetts.

Measuring Affordable Housing Is Key to Building More of It

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min