On the two-year anniversary of Massachusetts’ regrettable inhalation of the global pandemic, renters and buyers now find the housing crisis back to where it was before. Rental vacancy peaked at 8 percent in September 2020, but now is back to 0.8 percent. Per BostonPads, average rents for three-bedrooms, fours and fives are at record highs, I suspect because households are doubling and tripling up. Home prices never really suffered at all, and nationwide are up approximately 30 percent since 2019. Disposable personal income, meanwhile, is up only 14 percent.
Some in real estate may relish high prices. But unaffordably-high prices are bad for all. Many are learning that contract rents evaporate quickly when overreaching renters miss their first payment. And renter advocates have historically heaped blame for housing supply on those of us in real estate. Our businesses are at perpetual policy risk. We must take the renter advocacy argument to those who constrain the market: those of us who enforce single family zoning. What are renter advocates saying?
Renters Want Local Rent Control, but Shouldn’t
Bills being heard by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing between March 1 and May 9 would take the commonwealth right back to the rent control days. We had rent control in Massachusetts once before. It failed. We repealed it in 1994.
Rent control artificially suppressed real estate assessments and tax revenue. This created increased state aid to those towns beyond what they otherwise would have been due.
Rent control decreased housing supply. In 2009, the American Institute for Economic Research demonstrated that rent control’s repeal “associated with a 6 percent point increase in the probability of a unit being a rental.” If you apply that to Boston alone, that would mean taking 16,000 units off the market.
Rent control had racist disparate impact. Brigham Young University researcher David Sims showed in 2007 that people of color were able to rent controlled units only half as often as you’d expect based on the general population. This is because of an effect predicted by Heikki Loikkanen in 1985. Landlords who can only charge so much will hold units vacant longer hoping for a “perfect” applicant.
Even in the presence of strong laws protecting applicants against personal racism, America and Massachusetts no less have a problem with systemic racism. Consider a typical background check. The Sentencing Project shows African Americans constitute 53 percent of drug convictions, despite representing only 14 percent of drug users. Applicants of color were unfairly, disproportionately less likely to be “perfect” and to get a rent-controlled unit.
Despite all this, rent control remains intuitively helpful short-term! Too few see the long-term failings. Time and again people have advocated for it, voted for it, and planned ballot initiatives to bring it back. They will do it again if we are not responsive by creating more lower-priced rental units.
‘Family’ Zoning Is the Real Sickness
When I became a landlord, I was disappointed not to receive a ceremonial toilet plunger and bathrobe uniform. (Why else would I have entered the business?) But I received something much more valuable: anti-discrimination training.
Landlords simply cannot inquire about the marital status or relationships of a household. This is right and just. Yet this unlawful inquiry is exactly what we allow towns and cities to do with zoning. “This lot is single-family” – the language is discriminatory. The effect is stultifying, even in areas we think of as dense.
Did you know that roughly half of Greater Boston is zoned effectively single family? It’s true. Even the city of Boston itself has minimum lot sizes, floor area ratios and parking requirements that conspire to make it impossible for anyone without special permission to add units. It’s often not possible even to rebuild units lost to fire without a variance. You can see the effectively single-family zoning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s zoning atlas.
There is no safety motivation for single-family zoning. Safety is taken care of in the building code and the state sanitary code. These codes are agnostic to familial relations, or lack thereof. The codes ensure minimum square footage, fire egress, ventilation and more.
There is no aesthetic motivation for single-family zoning. Does density mean skyscrapers? No. So-called “gentle density” means splitting buildings as already built for better use inside.
For instance, California recently passed a statewide package, Building Opportunities for All, to eliminate required single family zoning and create duplexes. Oregon passed a similar law in 2019 eliminating bans on duplexes and townhouses in cities with more than 10,000 residents. Minneapolis was the first, their ordinance bans single family zoning altogether as long as exterior conditions are met, like yard space. These communities are not suddenly ugly. Nor are they overrun with traffic. Nor are their classrooms overflowing with students (assuming pre-pandemic seating).
Massachusetts’ own Housing Choice was a start, but we have far to go. If you influence zoning, please work towards gentle density. Make apartments legal in your town. We can’t afford not to.
Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.