We Need to Use Every Tool in the Toolbox

The following testimony was submitted to the Joint Committee on Housing on Tuesday, January 14, 2020.

 

Chairman Crighton, Chairman Honan, and Members of the Joint Committee on Housing:

My name is Jonathan Cohn, and I am the chair of the Issues Committee of Progressive Massachusetts, a statewide grassroots advocacy group committed to fighting for an equitable, just, democratic, and sustainable Commonwealth.

It is because of those values that we write today in support of H.3924 (An Act enabling local options for tenant protections) and S.773 (An Act supporting affordable housing with a local option for a fee to be applied to certain real estate transactions).

 

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Massachusetts has a lot to offer, but that does little if people can’t afford to live here. The US News & World Report’s annual state rankings put Massachusetts at #41 in housing affordability (and #43 in cost of living).[1] A worker earning minimum wage in Massachusetts would have to work 91 hours a week to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at market rate (and 113 hours for a modest two-bedroom).[2] Monthly median rents have gone up by more than one-third since 2010, outpacing income growth.[3]

Clearly, Massachusetts has an affordable housing crisis. This is unsustainable. It has led to expanding economic inequality, increased homelessness, and damage to our economy, as talented workers often leave the state for less expensive regions.

Solving this affordable housing crisis will require us to use every tool in the toolbox.

That requires zoning reform that encourages the creation of walkable, sustainable, and inclusive communities.

But it also requires public investment. Over the last ten years, the need for affordable housing has increased, while funds for affordable housing have decreased at both federal and state levels.

And it requires strengthening tenant protections that ensure that communities can remain affordable, inclusive, and stable.

However, municipalities across Massachusetts are blocked from taking the necessary steps to address the housing crisis. The misguided statewide ban on rent stabilization policies and a stringent home rule system that prevents municipalities from passing their own laws to govern the basic aspects of civil affairs hamstring municipalities.

H.3924 provides the appropriate redress. It repeals the outdated and misguided statewide ban on rent stabilization policies and enables cities and towns to pass policies aimed to regulate rents, limit condo conversions, prevent landlords from evicting tenants without just cause (e.g., failure to pay rent, illegal activity), require landlords to inform tenants of their rights, and take other steps to protect tenants and ensure long-term affordability.

S.773 also removes barriers that cities and towns face in addressing the housing crisis. It would enable cities and towns to raise additional revenue for affordable housing by levying a small fee on real estate transactions (with the ability to establish exemptions as appropriate in each municipality).

There is no silver bullet to solving our affordable housing crisis. But if we are to have a chance at solving it, we must empower municipalities to take action. We thus encourage you to give a favorable report to H.3924 and S.773.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jonathan Cohn

Chair, Issues Committee

Progressive Massachusetts  

 

[1] https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/opportunity/affordability

[2] http://nlihc.org/oor/massachusetts

[3] https://www.zillow.com/ma/home-values/

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