Baker’s Housing Choice bill short on choice

Without protections, displacement could be result

LET’S START with something everyone agrees on: Massachusetts is in a housing crisis. Now for something that’s up for debate: the solution is to build more market-rate housing across the state. Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice Bill, introduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session, and currently being considered as part of an end-of-session economic development package, takes aim at the state’s housing crisis by proposing to cut the red tape that stands in the way of housing production. Baker’s legislation, which is supported by a coalition of real estate developers and housing advocates, follows the logic of supply and demand. Housing prices are high because there is not enough housing (supply) for all the people who need it (demand). So to reduce prices, we need to build more housing.

While it is true that more supply to meet demand will generally lower housing prices over time, this logic contains one destructive oversight. Unregulated housing production drives up housing prices at a local level in the short term and creates significant risk of displacement for low-income renters and homeowners. Put simply, Baker’s solution to the housing crisis, if not paired with stronger standards for affordable housing development and comprehensive protections for tenants and small property owners, may actually exacerbate the crisis for those who are most vulnerable.

One of the reasons that housing is so pricey in Massachusetts is because it’s illegal to build multi-family housing in much of the state. In metro Boston alone, 70 percent of the municipalities have more than 80 percent of their land zoned for single-family use. This restriction on building multi-family housing means there is simply less housing to go around, so the prices are higher. The dominance of single-family zoning is held in place by the fact that any changes to zoning require a supermajority vote. In essence, even though we need more housing, it is extremely difficult to actually build any.

The basic idea of Baker’s Housing Choice Bill is to remove this supermajority restriction so that zoning practices that promote denser multi-family housing would only require a majority vote. If it passes, cities and towns could more easily amend zoning codes to allow for accessory dwelling units in yards, multi-family housing, and fewer parking requirements in new developments with only a majority vote. The logic follows that with an easier path to approval for these zoning changes, cities and towns will allow more multifamily housing, which creates more housing supply and pushes prices down for everyone.

The problem with Baker’s approach is that, in the short term, housing production in cities and towns with low property values close to transit drives up housing prices, causes gentrification, and leads to the displacement of low income residents. With a loosening of zoning restrictions across all cities and towns in the Commonwealth, cities like Brockton, Malden, and Lynn that are commuting distance from Boston, but where housing prices are currently low, would quickly become ripe for new high-end development. Low-income residents of these places will then either have to move out of the community or pay higher prices.

Baker’s proposal does have a provision to reduce restrictions on multi-family housing near transit with at least 10 percent of affordable units. But in a city like Brockton, where 54 percent of renters already pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on rent, this provision does not come close to providing enough affordable housing for low-income residents, especially when the standards for affordability make even “affordable housing” out of reach for many. (A family of four that makes $96,250 can still qualify for an affordable unit at 80 percent of Boston metro area median income). Ironically, Baker’s Housing Choice proposal would only restrict housing choices for many low-income people.

So how could Baker’s bill create more housing without the risk of displacing the very people who need housing the most? The answer is twofold. First, the bill must mandate that developers build a higher percentage of affordable housing — at standards that are actually affordable for low-income renters — with every market-rate development. This would provide more housing options for low-income renters and offset the local price shocks that will result from housing choice.

Second, the bill must include a comprehensive slate of protections that protect low-income renters and homeowners, often people of color, who are most prone to displacement. A number of amendments to the economic development bill would provide the type of protection necessary. These include lifting the ban on rent stabilization to enable municipalities to set their own tenant protections, establishing a tenant right to counsel, guaranteeing a tenant’s right to purchase a property if the building he or she is living in is being sold, providing a local option for municipalities to tax large real estate transfers to finance affordable housing, and establishing special protections for renters and small property owners facing eviction and foreclosure due to COVID-19-related financial hardship. It is these types of protections that will actually give low-income tenants “housing choice.”

Meet the Author

David Robinson

Researcher, department of urban studies and planning, MIT
If the Legislature deliberates and passes nothing on housing in this session we would be failing to meaningfully address the state’s housing crisis in yet another session. But to pass a bill that would actively accelerate the displacement of our most vulnerable residents without the adequate protections is simply not conscionable. We have the tools to both lower housing prices and protect people from displacement. Whether we have the political will is still an open question.

David Robinson is a researcher in the department of urban studies and planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and coauthor of the recent report, Evictions in Boston: The Disproportionate Impacts of Forced Moves on Communities of Color.