CommonWealth: A call for universal rental housing assistance

IN RECENT YEARS, Massachusetts has moved toward making things like health care and quality preschool universally available to all. What if we put affordable rental housing in that same category?  

That’s the idea behind a report being issued today that outlines an ambitious plan to ensure state rental assistance for all households in Massachusetts that need it. The report, issued by a group of area housing organizations and The Boston Foundation, and prepared by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, says about 585,000 Massachusetts households meet the income criteria for state rental assistance, but only roughly 250,000 of them are currently receiving aid – through a mix of state and federal programs.  

The report, titled “A Right to Rental Assistance in Massachusetts,” calculated that it would cost about $3.2 billion per year to expand the existing Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to serve the approximately 335,000 households currently receiving no help with rent payments.  

The report builds on a 2021 report from a state Senate committee charged with “reimagining” what it would take to strengthen the state in the post-pandemic world. The committee recommended a comprehensive approach to housing stability in which all families in need of rental assistance vouchers could receive them.  

Evan Horowitz, the Center for State Policy director who authored the new report, acknowledged that the bottom-line number to meet that goal is a big one. “It’s certainly a substantial cost, but I think it’s matched by the transformational impact,” he said of the benefits of universal rental assistance.  

The report says the federal government is in the best position to fund this type of ambitious housing support program – an idea the Biden administration has floated – but the state can take the lead now and “pilot new approaches” to housing assistance. Massachusetts established the first state-based rental assistance program with the launch of the rental voucher program five decades ago. It served as a model that the federal Section 8 program drew from.  

About 140,000 Massachusetts households currently have federal Section 8 vouchers, while the state rental assistance program covers just 9,000 to 10,000 households.  

Under these programs, households generally pay 30 to 40 percent of their income toward rent, with the voucher making up the balance. With the state’s supercharged housing costs, about half of all Black and Hispanic households and one in five white households qualify for housing assistance.  

Horowitz said universal state rental assistance would also likely help drive another state goal that has proved elusive in recent years – the production of a lot more housing. Unlike rent control – which critics say stifles incentives to build more housing – Horowitz said a universal rental aid program would “increase demand on developers to build more” as people who once may have been looked at as “risky renters” would have state assistance as a backstop. “You can make projects pencil out that wouldn’t have previously,” he said.  

The report authors are under no illusion that such a sweeping – and costly – initiative could be fully implemented anytime soon. The report seems more like an effort to jump-start the conversation on what would surely be a yearslong campaign to fold such an undertaking into the state budget.  

As they make their case, advocates will also point to the ripple effects of stable housing. Housing stability is a cornerstone for many other things that make for vibrant communities, said Steve Farrell, COO of Metro Housing|Boston, one of the groups issuing the new report. “Housing is a social predeterminant of health,” he said. “A family with stable housing will have better health outcomes and better education outcomes for their kids. It’s a foundation upon which many other family and social goods are built.” 

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