Boston Globe Op-Ed: How to ensure affordable housing in Massachusetts

The solution requires policies at the local level to allow multifamily housing development, public dollars to support construction, and public funding for rental assistance. 

By Rachel Heller and Christopher Norris December 14, 2022.

Rising housing costs are making it difficult for many people in Massachusetts to buy a home. Fortunately, the state has already begun the work to ensure an affordable Massachusetts. 

Creating enough affordable homes requires policies at the local level to allow multifamily housing development, public dollars to support construction, and public funding for rental assistance. Many communities require affordable homes to be created as part of any new development through inclusionary zoning and the state’s affordable housing law, Chapter 40B. Additionally, the state has its own rental voucher programs, including the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program. 

While the MRVP remains the largest state-funded voucher program in the country, the program currently serves fewer than 10,000 households. But a new report, “A Right to Rental Assistance in Massachusetts: How Policy Change Can Advance Equitable Housing” prepared by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, estimates that at least 240,000 more eligible households could be served by this program with increased funding of $3.2 billion annually. Though a substantial number, it is comparable to other essential pillars of the state budget, like early education and health insurance. And it is what we need for our neighbors and communities to thrive. 

Even with a mix of state and federal programs, including tax credit developments, public housing, and other rental assistance programs, the report estimates only 250,000 of the 585,000 individuals and families eligible for assistance receive the help they need. This is, in part, because market-rate and affordable rents built through inclusive policies and new construction must support the costs of paying the mortgage and keeping a building running and in good repair. Households at the upper end of income eligibility may be served by new housing created through zoning policies. But to lower rents to levels that people with the lowest incomes can afford, monthly rental assistance like MRVP is needed. 

The benefits of expanding the MRVP are confirmed by the report: This investment would reduce homelessness, improve housing stability, address racial inequities, alleviate poverty, and incentivize building housing that reaches people with extremely low incomes. For example, expansion would eliminate the distortions and deep unfairness that come with the current lottery and wait-list approach and reduce property-owner discrimination against voucher holders. It could also create new incentives to construct housing for voucher holders with the assurance of a guaranteed government payment for all units, similar to the federally funded Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher. 

When we do not invest in housing solutions, we continue to expand homeless shelter capacity. Over the past 20 years, our family shelter system has grown by 233 percent to 3,000 beds. Shelters should always be available for emergencies but are not a stable long-term solution for any household. An expansion of the MRVP could potentially save the state money in homelessness assistance and emergency housing, which typically cost $300 million to $400 million per year. 

Rental assistance proved how critically it preserved housing stability during the COVID-19 pandemic. A move to universal rental assistance would fundamentally change how we approach housing affordability in Massachusetts and would ensure that the state is providing the wide range of options people at different income levels need. 

Right now, housing is the single best investment Massachusetts can make to secure the future we all deserve. When people have affordable homes, they can live in the communities they choose, local businesses have customers, schools have teachers, and our communities are stronger. 

Massachusetts has been a leader in affordable housing before. Now we build the political will to retake the lead. 

Rachel Heller is CEO of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. Christopher Norris is executive director of Metro Housing|Boston. 


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