Boston’s Way Forward on HousingPosted: February 19, 2020
by City Councilor Lydia M. Edwards
Boston’s economy is thriving. Why then are so many residents of the City and Commonwealth struggling to find and afford housing, remain in the communities they love, become homeowners and build wealth? A shortage of housing that serves the needs of all economic classes and family structures is certainly part of the problem. But simply building across the region will not solve our state’s persistent housing affordability crisis. To house our diverse, growing population, we will need a multi-pronged approach that balances growth and prosperity with protection of all residents during both recession and economic booms and addresses the widening wealth gap that plagues our City and the Commonwealth. As Boston City Council Chair of the Housing and Community Development and Government Operations Committees, my view is that Boston can lead through housing policies that raise revenue for affordable housing, shape new inclusive neighborhoods through planning and zoning that affirmatively furthers fair housing, and stabilize communities through protections against involuntary displacement and equitable opportunities for home ownership.
Revenue for Affordable Housing
With the decades-long decline in federal funding, localities must look to other sources to finance the preservation and production of housing that is affordable to low- and moderate-income residents. Boston recently passed a home rule petition to collect a transfer fee of up to 2% on high-value real estate transactions that exceed $2 million dollars, subject to exemptions (“Transfer Fee Home Rule”). Enacted, the Transfer Fee Home Rule could generate as much as $169 million per year for affordable housing in Boston, vastly outstripping current resources at the City’s disposal. Municipalities as different as Somerville, Concord and Nantucket have also proposed transfer fees to fund their affordable housing, and 38 states and localities already have excise taxes on property sales.
Boston also has a pending home rule bill to authorize the City to update its existing Development Impact Program (“Linkage”) and Inclusionary Development Policy (“IDP”) which are each intended to mitigate the increased demands for affordable housing and job training attributable to large-scale developments. HB 4115. Enacted, HB 4115 would permit the City to make its own decisions to adjust the linkage fees to enable Boston to align more efficiently with changing market conditions and local needs without waiting for approval of the full General Court as currently required by statute; extend the IDP requirements (e.g., to create 13% of development as income-restricted units or contribute equivalent funds) which currently apply only to market-rate housing developments with 10 or more units and are in need of zoning relief, to all large projects regardless of whether zoning relief is needed; and codify the IDP into Boston’s Zoning Code.
Inclusive Zoning and Planning
Several “large projects” subject to Boston’s Article 80 Development Review and Approval process–including the former Suffolk Downs race tracks in East Boston, the Bunker Hill public housing in Charlestown, and the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing in South Boston–provide the City with unprecedented opportunities to shape entire new neighborhoods that provide an inclusive range of housing options to accommodate the City’s diverse population, while disrupting historic concentrations of poverty and patterns of racial and cultural segregation and providing access to employment and training opportunities for affected residents.
For public housing redevelopments, this may mean ensuring that income-restricted units are integrated with the market-rate units, whereas in purely private developments like Suffolk Downs, it may mean planning to ensure sufficient “affordable units” of the right bedroom size to house families and a community benefit agreement to mitigate meaningfully against adverse development impacts and hardships. I have proposed a zoning change for Boston to systematically ensure that all developers undertake deliberate and “meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics.” This change would amend the text of Boston’s Zoning Code to expressly incorporate our preexisting federal Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing obligations. Seattle and Portland, for example, already review their plans with a lens for racial equity and displacement risk along with opportunities for economic growth, to inform their choices.
The City also recently strengthened its comprehensive planning under the Climate Ready Boston Initiative by passing an Ordinance Protecting Local Wetlands and Promoting Climate Change Adaptation in the City of Boston to ensure the equitable protection of all residents from the effects of climate change.
Boston has been taking aggressive steps to address the chronic housing crisis since October 2014 when the mayor’s Housing Advisory Task Force issued Housing a Changing City: Boston 2030, which was updated in 2018. The original Plan called for the production of 69,000 new housing units by 2030 with specific targets for different affordability levels in an effort to create a more equitable and inclusive City. Beyond production, the City also dedicates funds to support the acquisition and deed-restriction of properties as affordable housing, regulates and restricts short-term rentals, protects against condominium conversions, and supports a right to counsel in eviction proceedings––all measures intended to protect residents, especially long-time, low-income, elderly, and disabled tenants, against involuntary displacement. The City also created the Office of Housing Stability (“OHS”) in 2016, the first of its kind in the nation, to work across City departments and with external partners to promote policies, practices, and programs that are effective in achieving housing stability for tenants at risk of eviction, which is also critical to stabilizing communities like Boston where the majority of the population is renters.
Other high-cost cities also have passed right to counsel legislation, and some states such as Oregon, California and New York are moving towards rent stabilization policies which would allow rent increases but prohibit increases as high as those experienced by many Boston residents. These states, as well as Boston, have also looked to “just cause eviction” policies in efforts to protect tenants current with rent and who otherwise have not broken their lease agreements.
Additionally, to encourage home ownership, Boston has expanded the availability of low-interest loans to moderate-income families through the ONE+ Boston program and approved zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units. Other policies which support resident-controlled housing, such as cooperatives, cohousing and community land trusts; the co-ownership of such housing by residents; and a resident’s right of first refusal to purchase, would each promote community stability, as well as individual opportunity to gain equity and build wealth.
Boston’s housing affordability crisis is not abating, and our response has not scaled up to protect all residents. With bolder action, we can create lasting stability in neighborhoods and reverse historic patterns of discrimination and dispossession in our real estate market, as well as in zoning and planning decisions. To achieve community stability we need a multifaceted approach to the housing shortage that is responsive to the diverse needs of all residents and to historic inequities and barriers to enabling them to remain in place and housed in their communities of choice.
Lydia Edwards has spent her entire career as an advocate, activist, and as a voice on behalf of society’s most vulnerable. She served as the deputy director within the Mayor’s Office of Housing Stability, as a public interest attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services focusing on labor issues, and she currently represents District One on the Boston City Council. For the 2020-2021 council session, she serves as Chair of the Committees on Housing and Community Development and Government Operations.