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Outdated policies of yesteryear that contribute to housing problems of today

By Jeremy Thompson

As a member of the intergenerational mobility project, I was tasked with exploring how transportation and housing policies can promote or deter intergenerational mobility, along with considering factors of urban design, the built environment and socio-spatial perspective.

Although Boston has one of the most robust subsidized housing programs in the country, affordable housing, neighborhood change (SES rise/gentrification) and lower rates of home ownership all contribute to the severe economic stratification in Boston that exists today. In response to surging market-rate rental prices and in anticipation of a long-term population surge, Mayor Martin Walsh made provisions to the Inclusionary Development Policy in 2015 to place greater emphasis on private developers’ role in the creation and continuation of affordable housing, specifically in Zone A (downtown neighborhoods) where neighborhoods can support more inclusionary development.

Despite clear and multifaceted initiatives from the Boston Planning & Development Agency and the Boston 2030 Plan, there are legislative obstacles that hinder the advancement and even spread of affordable housing options across the city. This blog post will briefly discuss how longstanding policies Question 9 (1994 State Referendum) and State Owner Opt-Out programs have outlived their usefulness.

In 1994, Massachusetts voters narrowly voted for Question 9: Massachusetts Rent Control Prohibition Initiative which prohibited rent control for most privately-owned housing units and nullified certain existing rent control laws.

At the time, Boston was on the brink of an economic resurgence, but few could have predicted what was to come: a nationwide ‘back-to-the-city’ movement taking place in America’s prominent urban hubs. Increased in-migration from suburban to urban areas, along with the spillover effects of the Great Recession, the decline of the platonic family structure and changes in general housing consumer preferences have significantly altered the landscape of housing in America. The Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University published a 2017 report that examined nationwide rental housing trends. Some takeaways include:

Furthermore, a 2014 MIT report examined the housing market spillover effect from the end of rent control in Cambridge. Examining rental properties from 1988-2005, they found significant price appreciations in decontrolled and nearby never-controlled properties. They estimated that these properties accounted for nearly a quarter of Cambridge’s overall residential property appreciations in this time frame (roughly $1.95 billion).

Although rent control is highly controversial, these two studies make a compelling case for it, given the surges in market-rate housing, the higher demand for urban living and the lower demand for homeownership that has occurred since the 1994 referendum.

The second policy hurdle involves state owner opt-out programs that were created in the 1960s. As affordable housing shifted from a public service to a private service (through state-sponsored incentives), many state programs offered ownership incentives that seemed benign at the time, but currently thwart affordable housing efforts in the city’s most residential neighborhoods.

Developmental programs that produced privately-owned affordable units gave owners the option to opt out of their responsibilities after 30-40 years of ownership. Most of these developments are past their time restrictions, inconveniently, as Boston poises itself for an unprecedented population surge.

The subsequent price appreciations in market-rate rental units combined with the increase in demand from populations that traditionally owned units would theoretically discourage this subset of development owners from continuing to provide affordable housing units (who are free from legal obligation to do so).

According to the Boston 2030 report, the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation “has identified 3,038 units of housing at elevated risk for conversion into market-rate housing within the next ten years.”

As urban and regional policy students, we learn about policy toolkits meant to mitigate or circumvent longstanding policies. Planners and scholars will need to use all of their pan-disciplinary fire power to offset outdated legislation that, in part, contributes to economic stratification and housing inequity in Boston. The city does not want to lose out to competing municipalities as the metropolitan area continues to grow.

Our group has pooled together research to create a report, which is near completion. We are simultaneously compiling relevant charts and graphs, as well as analyzing the list of Boston Foundation’s grantees and expenditures. Our goal is to provide The Boston Foundation with a list of recommendations to help them refocus and rejuvenate their areas of interest, and to link them to organizations which promulgate inter-generational mobility.

Published On: March 29, 2018 |
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