Making housing a Beacon Hill priority

It’s proving hard to get issue onto the urgent to-do list

IT’S THE QUINTESSENTIAL  housing story for many Boston area residents in their twenties and thirties. An apartment with three bedrooms, each commanding $1,100-plus, one bathroom, questionable maintenance, lead paint, and a broken dryer somewhere down in the basement. The landlord is absentee, or aloof at best, flagrantly violating tenant rights and jacking up your rent while cutting corners at worst. If you’re buying, it’s even worse.

As the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung writes, housing is on the minds of elected officials, but hasn’t been a priority. The triple whammy facing area renters and would-be buyers: insufficient housing supply, a lack of affordable options, and inequity in access to housing.

It’s not as if local leaders aren’t trying. At a recent Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh asked the business community to support Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, to encourage developers to build middle-class housing, and to take a stance against displacement.

“We also need owners and investors to take a step back and consider the human impacts of their actions,” he said. Walsh’s administration has created 31,000 new homes and has a goal of 69,000 by 2030, with 20 percent being income restricted.

For people searching for apartments now, it’s all of little help. With little supply to work with, the going rate is often $2,300 for a one-bedroom, multiplied by at least three for first month, last, and a security deposit. God help you if there’s a broker fee, too. It’s little wonder that questions about rent control are popping up in Boston City Council candidate forums.

Meanwhile, for buyers, Leung writes, the median price of a Boston area single-family home is $640,000.

According to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card of 2019, issued by The Boston Foundation, there’s not enough housing, and the housing that exists is expensive. Metropolitan Boston is now the fourth most expensive area in the US.

Baker’s housing production legislation revolves around zoning, or, more specifically, allowing a majority vote to pass housing-related zoning changes in municipalities, where currently a two-thirds supermajority is required. It didn’t pass in 2018 because many housing groups were late at throwing their support behind it. Massachusetts is currently one of only a few states to require a supermajority to change local zoning.

Former state economic and housing development chiefs Jay Ash, Ranch Kimball, Dan O’Connell, and Greg Bialecki all support the bill, which is meant to bolster the already existing Housing Choice Initiative, a plan to build 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

But the bill is still hung up in the Joint Committee on Housing, where House chairman Kevin Honan is waiting for his colleagues who are concerned about overdevelopment to give their blessing to move it out.

Meanwhile, his Senate counterpart, Brendan Crighton, is interested in adding a change that would require towns to have multi-family zoning near train stations.

With education and transit bills hanging heavily over legislators’ heads, it’s hard to see how housing becomes a top priority right now. That would need the political will of Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka. When Baker said in September that he’d like to pass the bill this fall, DeLeo told reporters he wouldn’t commit to that, but was planning to discuss the issue with local officials, while noting many already in favor of the bill. DeLeo reiterated the long-held opinion that the bill doesn’t go far enough on some issues.

Some opponents want to see more resources directed toward low-income rental assistance and an expansion of Boston and Cambridge’s inclusionary zoning. The bill has always been centered on production, not affordability or tenant issues, with the only bone tossed to affordable housing advocates being that it would be easier for developers to get community approval if their projects include at least 10 percent of affordable units in locations near transit or areas with commercial activity.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Mayors like Salem’s Kim Driscoll and Easthampton’s Nicole LaChapelle are still on board, citing the high cost of housing to seniors on fixed incomes and young families.

Baker is sticking to his guns and calling the bill a reasonable place to land. “Some people would like less, some people would like more,” he said a recent briefing. “I’m going to play Goldilocks here and say it’s just right.”