High rents are bad for your health

Wu's rent stabilization proposal is helpful but no panacea

AS HEALTH CARE professionals and affordable housing leaders, we endorse Mayor Michelle Wu’s recently proposed rent stabilization plan for Boston. Investment in rent stabilization is an investment in health, health equity, and the health of our local communities.

Boston’s housing affordability crisis continues to be a threat to the health of communities. According to The Boston Foundation, the average rental vacancy rate from 2015-2019 was 3.8 percent, far below the “healthy” vacancy rate of approximately 6 percemnt for similar metro areas. Many Bostonians spend more than one-third of their income to pay for their rent, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

High rental prices lead to adverse health effects. When rent becomes a source of financial strain, other universal needs like healthcare become secondary. Money allocated to rent cannot be used for crucial medical treatment. Once rents surpass families’ ability to pay, they risk eviction and homelessness, which is associated with poor birth outcomes, higher rates of suicide and mental health hospitalizations, and higher rates of all-cause mortality.

In contrast, families with affordable rent have better access to healthier foods and health insurance. A study on the Boston Foundation’s Health Starts at Home initiative found that when families were connected with housing counselors or received rent subsidies, their emergency department visits by children decreased by half, and caregiver rates of depression dropped from 60 percent to 37 percent within just one year.

Rent control or stabilization policies have been implemented in other cities and states with some positive impacts. Oregon passed rent control measures in 2019 by capping rent increases at 7 percent plus inflation. While the law has proven limited in protecting tenants due to high inflation, it has mitigated the most severe rent hikes and served as an essential lifeline of predictability and stability for residents. Mayor Wu’s proposal for Boston is similar to Oregon’s policies, with a critical difference: her proposal caps rental increases at 10 percent, regardless of inflation.

The real estate industry opposes Wu’s rent stabilization proposal on the grounds that it would dampen housing production, exacerbate the housing crunch, create hardships for landlords, and disincentivize them from maintaining and improving their properties. However, the lack of affordable housing is a complicated issue that no single solution can solve, so we need all available tools to tackle the problem.

In addition to rent stabilization, we need (1) more funding sources at the state and city levels, (2) more streamlined permitting and approval processes, (3) updated zoning to make building housing easier, (4) other cities and towns in the Commonwealth to produce more transit-oriented housing, and (5) better regulations to protect renters from arbitrary rent increases and no-cause evictions.

Meet the Author

Jarone Lee

Doctor, Massachusetts General Hospital
Meet the Author

Angie Liou

Executive director, Asian Community Development Corporation
Meet the Author

Raymond Liu

Vice president, Mass General Brigham Global Advisory
Meet the Author

Audrey D Nguyen

Medical student, UCLA Schol of Medicineo
Rent stabilization is not the panacea for the housing affordability crisis and its health inequities. Still, it can be an effective tool to help protect renters from unreasonably high rent increases while balancing the needs of landlords. The movement toward housing justice and health equity requires much more: a concerted, collaborative, and multidisciplinary approach that leverages rent stabilization, funding sources at local and state levels, improved regulations to protect tenants from unjust rental changes, and the creation of more affordable housing. Many of these initiatives will take time and persistence. While the plan is not an all-encompassing answer for housing insecurity, it’s the right move toward housing stability, bringing housing—and health—within reach for Boston communities.

Jarone Lee and Raymond Liu are physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital. Lee is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a board member of the Asian Community Development Corporation. Audrey D. Nguyen is a medical student at the UCLA School of Medicine and a masters in public health candidate at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health. Angie Liou is executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation. All opinions expressed are opinions of the authors and do not reflect the opinions of the respective affiliations.