A holiday wish list for legislative action on housing

The need is great; lawmakers should act 

WHEN IT COMES to Massachusetts affordable housing policy, it is easy to have a vigorous debate about whether the glass is half full or half empty – and both sides would have a strong argument to make. 

The half-full proponents would point to the fact that Massachusetts is one of the only states with statefunded public housing, a statefunded rental assistance program, and a powerful anti-snob zoning law that has produced 70,000 homes across the state.  

Boston, for all its housing challenges, has more subsidized housing per capita than any major city in the country with fully one-third of the city’s apartments having government restricted subsidized rents. Earlier this year, our state enacted perhaps the strongest eviction moratorium in the country and our state is now implementing a $171 million eviction diversion initiative (albeit with many challenges and problems during its initial roll out).  

The half-empty proponents could point to our absurdly high home pricesunaffordable rentsaccelerating gentrification, entrenched racial and economic segregation, shameful levels of homelessness and persistent NIMBYism to make a compelling case that that the glass is not even one-quarter filled. Indeed, housing insecurity is wreaking untold harm to families, seniors, and children that is impacting our health, our children’s education, and our economic future. COVID-19 has exacerbated these problems and we now face a wave of evictions (already a massive problem before the pandemic) that could devastate thousands of families. A long history of racist policies and systems continue to cause these challenges to disproportionately impact black, indigenous and other communities of color. 

Of course, both arguments are correct. We do have much of which to be proud in our state’s history of affordable housing policies, but these policies are not enough for hundreds of thousands of our neighbors. Thankfully, there is widespread agreement that the glass is not nearly full enough and the glass is getting bigger every year, so more of the same won’t do the job. We need to do much better, both to respond to the immediate COVID-19 eviction crisis and to our long-term structural housing challenges. 

With just two weeks to go, the Massachusetts Legislature and the governor have an opportunity in this Legislative session to fill the glass a bit more, and to do so in ways that will meaningfully and measurably reduce housing insecurity in the Commonwealth. Several important pro-housing measures are still pending with just days to go. Here is my holiday wish list for what the state can do to advance housing policy in the next two weeks: 

  • Enact eviction prevention measures as part of finalizing the FY 2021 budget. The Legislature’s budget proposed provisions to ensure that tenants who receive a notice to quit also receive information about their rights under state and federal eviction laws, and language to protect tenants from eviction if their application for rent relief is still pending. Gov. Baker sent this section back with proposed technical amendments. This needs to be resolved quickly so that tenants receive the information and the protection they need. Otherwise, we could see thousands of evictions even though state (and hopefully federal) relief dollars are available to pay landlords their back rent. This would be a tragedy of epic proportions. 
  • Enact an economic development bill with strong housing provisionsThe House and Senate both passed versions of an economic development bill in July and the legislation is still pending before a HouseSenate conference committee. As the conferees work to reconcile the two versions, there are several critical housing provisions at stake. The final bill must:
         –Expand the state Low Income Housing Tax Credit by $20 million per year. 
         –Seal eviction records for certain tenants as the Senate has proposed so families have a chance to find new housing.
         –Adopt tenantopportunityto-purchase legislation as proposed by the House to help stabilize rents and neighborhoods and to make it harder for out-of-state corporate investors to buy up buildings and raise rents.
         –Create a multi-family zoning requirement in MBTA communities to promote transit-oriented development that increases housing affordability for moderate-income households, reduces housing segregation, and lessens carbon emissions. Finally adopt Housing Choices legislation that will make it easier for municipalities to adopt smart growth zoning amendments with a simple majority vote.  
  • Enact Boston’s home rule petition that would enable the city to establish inclusionary zoning rules and to modernize its highly successful and long-standing linkage program. The Boston City Council, the mayor, and the Boston legislative delegation support this petition, so why shouldn’t the Legislature? 

Adopting these policies will make a difference now and in the future. Will there be more work to do in 2021? Of course – and we will be sure to have additional ideas to share in the new year. However, there is a crisis raging right now, and these opportunities are right in front of us. It is time to act. 

Joseph Kriesberg is president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.