Boston Globe The Argument: Should Massachusetts provide rental assistance for all who qualify?

Boston Globe
Published March 12, 2023

Christopher Norris 
Executive Director, Metro Housing|Boston 

The Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program is the largest state-funded voucher program in the country, but the program currently serves fewer than 10,000 households, one half of the number it served more than 30 years ago. 

A recent report Metro Housing|Boston helped produce estimates that a universal rental assistance program would serve 240,000 more eligible households and cost $3.2 billion annually. Though this a substantial amount, it’s comparable to the cost of other essential pillars of the state’s safety net. 

The benefits of expanding the investment in the voucher program (MRVP) include reducing homelessness, improving housing stability, addressing racial inequities, alleviating poverty, and incentivizing building housing that accommodates people with extremely low incomes. 

When we don’t invest in housing solutions, we continue to expand homeless shelter capacity. Since 2000, our family shelter system in Massachusetts has grown by 291 percent to 3,883 beds. Shelters are not a stable long-term solution for any household. An expansion of MRVP could potentially save the state money in homelessness assistance and emergency housing, which typically cost $300 million to $400 million per year. 

Expanding the program to cover all eligible residents in the state would have a powerful impact on racial equity. Close to half of Black families and 56 percent of Hispanic families in Massachusetts qualify for rental vouchers. By contrast, less than one in five white families do. By guaranteeing vouchers for all who qualify, we would dramatically ease the cost burden for renters of color. 

A move to universal rental assistance also would help to offset the impact of exclusionary zoning that prevents building housing that is affordable for families in need. Expansion of the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program would encourage towns and developers to increase the housing stock. If the overall rents stay within the limits set by the program, the availability of vouchers would ensure access and affordability for folks with lower incomes. 

A half-century ago, Massachusetts was the first state to create a rental assistance program. Today, we can be the first state to make it universal as called for by the 2021 Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency. Let’s take this step to ensure that all eligible families — not just some — receive the housing assistance they need. 

David DeCoste 
State representative, Norwell Republican 

As committee assignments are finalized and our state Legislature begins working on the over 6,000 bills that have been filed thus far in 2023, how best to deal with a housing shortage in the Bay State is once again among the foremost challenges we face. 

One proposal that has been gaining attention is to possibly increase funding to the existing Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program to include all eligible households currently receiving no rent subsidies. The cost of this expanded coverage is estimated to be over $3 billion annually. This is a significant amount given that the fiscal 2023 budget was $53 billion and this year we are already seeing greater demand for education, transportation, health, and other state spending. 

As it is currently administered, the MRVP provides rental vouchers to eligible individuals and families. The vouchers are meant to provide the difference between the market rent and what a low-income household can afford to pay (typically 30 percent to 40 percent of their income) toward rent, with the voucher making up the monthly balance due. It is currently estimated that if the state adopted a universal rental assistance program, an additional 240,000 households or so would be served, at an average cost of $1,000 a month. 

What we do not know going forward is how much if any additional demand will occur if the Commonwealth were to essentially establish a right to housing vouchers for all who qualify. Is it reasonable to assume that this policy may encourage more arrivals from outside of the state seeking subsidized housing? Given the law of supply and demand, might the increased number of state subsidies result in substantially increased average rents overall? 

 We owe the taxpayers of the Commonwealth a more thorough analysis of what the overall impact of this policy will be. 

We also owe our citizens an examination of possible alternative policies to expand housing, one of which is increased funding to rebuild and expand our local housing authorities. 

In the communities that I represent, local housing authorities provide the most affordable units available. And typically, those units are targeted to our elderly population and those developmentally disabled people capable of independent living. These authorities do a superb job and deserve more support. 

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