Suburbs stymie new housing growth
A new report by the Boston Foundation confirmed what Boston area residents already know: There’s not enough housing in Greater Boston, and the housing is too expensive.
Luc Schuster, executive director of Boston Indicators, the Boston Foundation’s research center, said a big part of the problem is there are higher income suburbs, often built near commuter rail stations, that have been reluctant to build more housing, leaving the job to a handful of communities.
“The challenge is that it’s really a small subset of municipalities that are doing that new housing construction,” Schuster said. “It’s really predominantly metro core communities like Boston, Cambridge, Medford that are doing most of the construction.”
Schuster and Scott Van Voorhis, a Boston area reporter who writes the Contrarian Boston newsletter, appeared on The Codcast this week to talk about the Boston Foundation report and the challenges of meeting the region’s housing needs. The report uses a range of metrics, like vacancy rates and prices, to show that demand for housing in Greater Boston far outstrips supply. That results in homeowners and renters becoming overly burdened by costs.
Van Voorhis said the only solution may be for state officials to put more pressure on reluctant local communities – even pursuing policies like statewide rezoning, which allows certain types of building by right on any parcel of land. “I just think there needs to be a much tougher approach from the state to communities,” Van Voorhis said. “Maybe that’s not even politically possible because no governor wants to get into a feud with 200 towns and suburbs. But what we’re doing isn’t working.”
Van Voorhis said there are wealthier communities – including some in the MetroWest, South Shore, and North Shore regions – where the only type of development going on is tearing down older modest homes to build more expensive, larger homes.
One recent example of the housing debate is a newly passed policy that requires communities with MBTA access to create new zoning that would allow more housing units near the MBTA stops. Some communities have pushed back, saying allowing that density of housing would overwhelm their resources.
“In the town of Kingston, the town administrator threw out the idea, well, maybe if we just got rid of the T station, then we wouldn’t have to comply at all,” Van Voorhis said.
Schuster defended the law, saying it does not require all the units be built, but only that the zoning be put in place to authorize more multi-family homes. “We don’t have anything close to a free market in housing right now at all, because we’ve allowed very small municipalities to erect zoning rules that legally prohibit the construction of anything other than large single-family homes,” Schuster said. “MBTA communities upzoning is just saying you’d have more options for what you’d like to do with your land if the community adopted this new zone.”
One of the report’s more striking findings relates to affordable and subsidized housing. The report says that in some cases, there is housing available, but people cannot find or access it. For example, in the summer of 2022 there were subsidized units available with no waiting lists in Kingston, Bellingham, Scituate, Plymouth, and Shrewsbury. The report says this is likely due to a lack of marketing and the lack of a central database for affordable housing units. Some places also have homes that are inaccessible by public transportation, so anyone without a car cannot live there.
The report suggests there may also be a racial dimension – the Kingston development was advertised in heavily white Barnstable and Falmouth, but not in the geographically closer but more racially diverse communities of Brockton and Randolph.
“We have such a piecemeal, hyperlocal approach both to market-rate housing construction and to subsidized housing construction that at best we’ve just created a maze for people to navigate,” Schuster said. “I think, at worst, some people without the best of intentions use that confusion of the system to make it very hard for people to know when there are openings for affordable housing lotteries.”
Schuster said historically, there have been racist elements to zoning codes and other public policies, like lending, that pushed Black and Latino families out of home ownership. In practice, he said, that still exists today based on income. Suburban zoning that only allows single-family homes on large lots and bans townhouses, duplexes, or triple deckers excludes Black and Latino families who statistically have lower incomes than White families.
Van Voorhis said some upper income towns have become “almost like private clubs where you have to spend $1 million to get entrance into it.”
NEW STORIES FROM COMMONWEALTH MAGAZINE
Money flowing in right direction: A state audit finds money from the historic Student Opportunity Act is going as intended to poorer communities struggling to educate low-income students, English learners, and special education students. Gateway Cities are big beneficiaries. But how that money is being spent isn’t entirely clear, as large amounts of the funding have not been accounted for in reports to the state. Brockton, for example, received $23 million but spelled out how it is spending only $1.2 million. Read more.
MBTA restructuring: Rep. William Straus, the House chair of the Transportation Committee, calls for narrowing the focus of the MBTA to just bus and subway, and spinning off commuter rail, ferries, and capital projects on their own or to other entities. Read more.
Hospital labor shortages: There are an estimated 19,000 unfilled hospital positions in Massachusetts right now, with the biggest shortfall in nursing positions, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Hospital Association.Read more.
Wind farm in doubt: A 1,200 megawatt Massachusetts wind farm raises doubts about its viability without changes to the power purchase contract it signed with the state’s utilities. Read more.
Checks are coming: The first checks and direct deposits from a nearly $3 billion pot of excess tax revenue will start going out to taxpayers on Tuesday. Read more.
Drug discount program defended: Eric Dickson, the president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health, said the federal drug discount program 340B is vital to providing hospital care and efforts by drug makers to undermine it must be stopped and penalized. Read more.
Turning point for women: Barbara Lee of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation says this election will be a historic turning point for women in Massachusetts. Read more.
Yes on Question 4: Juliana Morris, a primary care doctor in Chelsea, says Question 4 is an investment in health. Read more.
No on Question 4: Don Rosenberg, president of Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime, says Question 4 won’t make our roads any safer. Read more.
STORIES FROM ELSEWHERE AROUND THE WEB
State employees rehired after they were terminated for refusing to get a COVID vaccine will not be offered back pay. (MassLive)
Natick and its police continue to bury allegations of sexual assault against one of their own. (WBUR)
Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux, who is running for Bristol County sheriff, said he will appeal a decision by the state Department of Labor Relations finding that he made “coercive” comments during a dispute with the Attleboro firefighters’ union. (Standard-Times)
Worcester voters are divided on whether to adopt the Community Preservation Act, where tax money is raised to conserve local land and improve parks and some housing. (Telegram & Gazette)
Nurses protest a plan by St. Vincent Hospital to shut down its intravenous therapy team, who are nurses specially trained to administer IVs. (Telegram & Gazette)
Just days after assuming ownership of Twitter, Elon Musk tweets to his more than 100 million followers – and then later deletes – a message spreading entirely unsubstantiated rumors about the attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (Washington Post)
Vice President Kamala Harris will attend a Roxbury rally for Massachusetts Democrats on Wednesday evening. (MassLive)
The Boston Globe endorses Republican Anthony Amore for state auditor.
Redistricting has made the reelection bid of Georgetown Republican state Rep. Lenny Mirra more difficult. (Salem News)
Gubernatorial candidates Maura Healey and Geoff Diehl discuss community development and housing issues at a forum at Worcester’s Polar Park. (Telegram & Gazette)
Democratic state Rep. Jake Oliveira of Ludlow and Republican businessman William Johnson of Granby are vying for the state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Eric Lesser. (MassLive)
Republican Dean Martilli – who won’t say if President Biden fairly won the 2020 presidential election – is challengingUS House Ways and Means Chair Rep. Richard Neal. (MassLive)
First-time homebuyers could be eligible for up to $50,000 in state assistance under a new program tapping COVID relief funds. (Boston Globe)
Tax revenue collected from Massachusetts marijuana businesses increased by 27 percent last fiscal year compared to the prior year. (Gloucester Daily Times)
Massachusetts is one of five states to extend universal free school lunches through this school year, and advocates hope to make that permanent. (Telegram & Gazette)
The Boston Public Schools are struggling to fill 800 vacancies. (Boston Globe)
Jewish students attending Boston-area colleges say antisemitism has made them feel unsafe on their campuses. (GBH)
School photos at the Station Avenue Elementary School in South Yarmouth raise questions about segregating students by race. (Cape Cod Times)
The pilot Valley Flyer rail passenger service is becoming a permanent transportation option, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. (Berkshire Eagle)
Salem gets a $34 million federal grant to develop offshore wind capabilities around the Salem Harbor power plant. (Salem News)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management release a draft plan to help right whales coexist with offshore wind development. (Associated Press)
Beginning November 1, the state will ban throwing out textiles, like clothing and mattresses. (MassLive)
In an unusual battle within law enforcement, leaders of the Transit Police are ripping Suffolk County District Attorney Kevin Hayden after his office dropped charges against one of their officers for illegally doctoring a report justifying a colleague’s use of force. (Boston Globe)
A judge ruled that the promotional process used by police departments in the state is racially discriminatory. (Boston Globe)
An 84-year-old Chicopee woman sues the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, claiming her parish priest groped her butt during mass. (MassLive)
Evan Smith, the CEO and founder of the Texas Tribune, is moving on to the Emerson Collective to become what Ben Smith calls the “Johnny Appleseed of local news.” (Semaphor)
Dan Kennedy draws attention to two attempts to ban books. (Media Nation)