The country faces a housing crisis: There is a growing shortage of affordable housing, and tenants and landlords in many places are struggling to meet their monthly payments.
The Greater Boston area is no better off. There are not enough houses for everyone; homelessness is on the rise; and modern zoning practices continue to perpetuate racial and economic segregation, according to a new study authored by Professor Northeastern Alicia SasserModestino.
“We have a lack of supply that has been a chronic problem for decades, but when you combine that with a booming economy that is attracting more residents from other parts of the United States as well as overseas, it means just that prices and rents are skyrocketing,” says Modestino, an associate professor of public policy, urban affairs, and economics.
As a result, Modestino says, the area has become one of the most expensive places to buy a home – ranking fifth most expensive in the country – as well as boasting one of the most expensive rental markets. expensive, with median rents higher than New York City, and only slightly below San Francisco and Los Angeles.
One consequence of all of this, Modestino says, is that it pushed some people onto the streets while sending those with college degrees and financial means packing for cheaper pastures.
“With each successive housing boom and bust cycle, we have excluded more of our population,” she says. “It’s not just the very low-income class or even the working class now; it is the middle class that is affected by the cost of living here.
Homelessness is also on the rise, Modestino says. While the City of Boston has taken steps to reduce its homeless population, the suburbs around Boston are where homelessness is most prevalent, especially in areas that have seen high rates of foreclosures and evictions, like Lowell and Lawrence, she says.
The findings are presented in an annual report to study that Modestino conducted in partnership with The Boston Foundation. Released in June, the report examines housing affordability and accessibility in Greater Boston and offers recommendations for increasing housing production.
“Now there’s an accountability structure,” Modestino says. “We can all look and see where individual cities are at in terms of production, their best practices, their degree of racial segregation, and we can form our own educated opinions about which cities and towns are producing their fair share and which . are not.”
The report ranked Massachusetts cities and towns on a number of factors, including how many units they’ve produced in the past five years, whether they’re producing enough housing relative to their size, and how diversity of their population.
Good performers include the city of Boston, which Modestino says has been producing above its planned production level for some time, and has committed to producing an additional 63,000 units by 2030; Burlington and Everett were also described as exemplary.
But it is the town of Boxborough, in the county of Middlesex, which tops the list. That’s because in 2015 and 2016, the city added 516 more units to its housing stock, a feat that Modestino says was made possible by a state status which allows developers whose projects include affordable housing elements to circumvent restrictive zoning regulations.
The law has allowed several communities – including Salisbury, Swampscott, Westwood, Middleton and Concord – to increase their housing supply over the past five years.
“It’s truly a testament to the strength of this law, which has truly been one of the most effective tools we’ve had on the books for the past 50 years,” Modestino said.
What doesn’t work
The report denounces zoning practices that have intentionally excluded certain populations, whether by race, income, age or family type. Modestino says these rules also perpetuate persistent patterns of segregation. She cited as examples prohibitive regulations against the development of multi-family housing and the addition of extended family units to existing homes.
“It turns out to be an ugly truth that people have known for a long time,” she says.
The report focuses on a Massachusetts practice known as “home rule,” which gives local governments the power to make their own zoning decisions, and therefore dictate what types of housing should be allowed. In many cases, municipalities prefer high-cost single-family homes that may be out of reach for middle- and low-income households.
Modestino argues that self-reliance has impeded the development of much-needed multi-family and affordable housing units, and as such new housing production remains concentrated in only a small number of towns and cities. Most problematic, she says, is that the domestic regime has kept low-income residents and minority communities concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods.
What can be done
Modestino says a multi-pronged approach is needed to meet the challenge. To boost housing supply, she recommends relaxing or removing permit and age restrictions on multi-family housing development. To improve affordability, she supports allowing the development of secondary suites in neighborhoods zoned for single family homes and preserving existing affordable housing in the area. She is also in favor of mixed-use projects that include below-market-priced units and other inclusive zoning practices.
“It’s not just housing construction that would necessarily reduce racial segregation, because you can build all your luxury condos downtown or your single-family homes in the suburbs,” says Modestino. “It’s not going to move the dial. What you really need is to build different types of housing, like Suburban Multi-Family Housing and Suburban Affordable Housing.
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