Commonwealth Magazine

IN THE 2021 Greater Boston Housing Report Card, the Boston Foundation highlighted how the pandemic has amplified what was already one of Greater Boston’s most pressing needs: adequate housing supply in smart, sustainable, transit-accessible locations . Even before the pandemic, construction did not keep pace with the affordable housing targets set a few years earlier. As post-pandemic home prices continue to rise, building on innovations in zoning and transit-oriented housing is essential for housing equity.

To that end, we and other housing advocates were thrilled that the legislature passed and Governor Charlie Baker signed legislation that not only allows local zoning laws to be changed by a simple majority, rather than supermajority requirements that have blocked so many projects, but also includes a zoning requirement for communities that contain or are adjacent to MBTA stations.

These zoning changes could spur the development of new housing near public transport, leading to the creation of thousands of new homes in the area with access to jobs and economic hubs, while addressing the lack of supply that has made housing unaffordable in the area, with the most significant impact felt by communities of color in the urban core.

Although the Act itself carries great weight, much of its implementation and impact on local zoning is shaped by the Commonwealth Department of Housing and Economic Development. The agency’s draft guidelines set out the housing unit capacity for each municipality’s multifamily zoning district. Taken together, the zoning change could generate tens of thousands of new multi-family dwellings.

Although the guidelines do not include any requirement for affordability in new housing in these neighborhoods, we anticipate that affordable housing developers will be involved in the production of new housing and that many units built will be new, modestly sized homes suitable for families with rental vouchers. and for first-time buyers and first-generation buyers.

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This is a remarkable first step. But even as we work to shape the new guidelines, we must do more to amplify their impact. In a high-cost state like Massachusetts, we will almost certainly need additional subsidies to achieve affordability for low-income renters and buyers. The state should seek to increase funding for housing programs through the proposed State Housing Bonds Act to support the production of more new affordable housing in these new locations. In addition, the state should increase funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, Alternative Housing Voucher Program, and other tenant assistance to close the affordability gap for low-income households.

The potential impact of this law could also be negated if municipalities simply choose not to comply. For those who do not comply, the state will withhold state grant money from three programs – the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, and the MassWorks Infrastructure Program. . Wealthier communities not dependent on these state programs can vote to forgo state funding.

These are some of the same communities that have historically blocked the production of affordable, multi-family housing near public transportation. Each community must step up and do their fair share and gain the benefits they have obtained through exclusionary zoning practices.

Too often, fair and equitable housing policy has been thwarted by small groups speaking out and engaging. Research by Katherine Einstein, David Glick and Max Palmer of Boston University, published in their book Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and the Housing Crisis in the United States, shows that land use institutions and policies, from local zoning boards to courts, have historically amplified the voices of unrepresentative groupss community residents, who are able to block new housing in places that need it. It is incumbent upon all of us who supported this new law in the Legislative Assembly to ensure that its provisions avoid this trap and are enacted by our local communities.

In the Boston Foundation’s 2019 Housing Report, we explored the relationship between housing production and segregation. We found that communities that increased the production of multifamily housing saw a greater reduction in segregation.

There is also a strong link between housing policy and the racial wealth gap. Generations of institutionalized racism have entrenched segregation, and while the law prohibits outright discrimination, established patterns and autonomy have served to maintain the status quo. Legislation passed last year provides the tools to counter this story. Cities and towns have the ability to play a crucial role in solving our housing problem, and we as citizens must keep up the pressure on them to do so.

Many of us recently celebrated the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He poignantly said, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls on inevitable wheels. It comes from the tireless efforts and persistent work of men eager to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.

Meet the author

President and CEO, Boston Foundation

This hard work to advance housing takes many forms – and happens, often at sparsely attended but critically important committee meetings in towns and cities across the Commonwealth. These zoning provisions ease this burden by creating a pathway to more affordable housing. It is up to all of us to ensure that we use it.

Mr. Lee Pelton is the President and CEO of The Boston Foundation.


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