Commonwealth Magazine: Putting out a welcome mat for housing

Source: Commonwealth Magazine

Greater Boston’s booming housing market may be lucrative to real estate speculators, but the constricted supply of housing isn’t helping those who make long-term investments in their homes, according to a Boston city councilor and housing advocates.

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Councilor Lydia Edwards, who chairs the Housing and Community Development Committee and represents East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, said that if housing production (including affordable housing production) rises to a rate that better meets demand, speculators might be hurt but ordinary homeowners will gain a more long-term perspective on their investments.

“What we’re seeing is an inflation of that value and people buying in like it’s the new stock market in order to get a return that is just unheard of even on Wall Street on housing that they’re not occupying or even – sometimes – renting out,” Edwards said. “If that’s your goal, to make that kind of return on your investment, yes, building a lot more units might actually hurt that.”

Edwards joined Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing Boston, and Eric Shupin, the director of public policy for the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, on the Codcast.

Shupin agreed that ordinary homeowners would not be financially damaged if housing became more accessible, and he said the greater risk is the status quo, which could drive scores of people out of the region because they cannot afford to live here.

“If we keep things as they are, we’re all going to lose,” Shupin said. “Workers are going to lose because they’re not going to be able to afford to stay here. Business are going to lose because they won’t have the workers they can employ, and certainly our lowest income families will be hurt the most.”

Advocates, state lawmakers, and Gov. Charlie Baker have all homed in on housing as an area of legislative focus this session, and while the governor has accumulated a broad coalition for his narrowly tailored bill to change zoning processes, there is some appetite for more forceful measures.
The governor’s bill, dubbed housing choices, would lower the two-thirds vote threshold for municipal bodies to approve multifamily developments, but those decisions would still be left to city and town governments.

“The governor’s bill doesn’t require any community to do anything,” Shupin said.

Edwards, Shupin, and Norris want lawmakers to lower that threshold, and also make several other changes to support affordable housing production. Edwards said the governor’s bill would not lower the two-thirds threshold for municipalities to add affordable housing requirements to developments.

Many housing advocates around the state have rallied support for a competing bill filed by Reps. Andy Vargas of Haverhill and Kevin Honan of Boston, the co-chairs of the Housing Committee in the Legislature. The bill would lower the threshold for zoning changes, mandate multifamily housing around MBTA stations, and make it more difficult for abutters to sue to stop a housing development.

Looking beyond what is on the table in Massachusetts, Shupin noted, Minneapolis has “banned single-family zoning,” which he said would create more housing by encouraging the development of duplexes and triple-deckers.

One reason why there hasn’t been more of a push to solve the area’s housing crisis, according to Norris, is because the people it would help the most are not reliable voters. “Poor people vote at lower rates than people who are wealthy, and the folks that elect our elected officials end up with policies that favor them,” Norris said.

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