Setting the Table for Housing Reform

Over the summer, we are highlighting aspects of our Shared Prosperity Agenda. Our members are sharing their experiences and expertise on Education, Healthcare, Housing, Jobs and Wages, and Progressive Revenue.

This week we are focusing on Housing -- within five years, we want affordable and decent housing in safe and vibrant neighborhoods, made possible with Universal access to housing that costs no more than 1/3 of our household income. A good first step would be increased rental assistance. In addition, Roosevelt Institute | Boston members voted to increase participation in town meetings, further strengthening our individual democracies and paving the way for increased development.

Roosevelt Institute | Boston is a civic volunteer group working give young people a seat at the public policy table and increase upward mobility in their communities. Thank you to Alex Lessin for writing this synopsis of their work!

In January of this year Roosevelt Institute | Boston decided to address the high cost of housing in Greater Boston by conducting a series of policy workshops. The goal of the workshops was to inform our network (primarily renters between the ages of 20 – 35) about the high costs of housing, identify the underlying policy causes, and determine potential solutions. We asked experts, “Why is housing in greater Boston so expensive for young people and young families?"


As the chart from the Boston Globe captures, home prices in the communities in and around Boston have skyrocketed in the eight years prior to 2013 – and they were not cheap to begin with. Not surprisingly, we learned the main drivers include increased demand to live in the area combined with a nominal increase in the supply of housing (as this chart from Tim Reardon at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council demonstrates): 


Homeowners are looking good in this market; renters and buyers, not so much:

  • In the Greater Boston Area, more than 50% of renters pay at least a third of their income in rent, and 25% are paying at least half their income in rent, while the wait time for a rental voucher is over 10 years;
  • According to the US Census, Massachusetts Ranks 44th in Home Ownership (and 44th best in income inequality).

The experiences of our members mirror these statistics. Many of us chose to live in neighborhoods accessible to public transportation, and, for those lucky enough, close to our jobs. Our paychecks go towards rent and student loans – few to none of us are saving, and we do not yet have the income to afford the $20,000 - $50,000 down payment on a home.

Increased rental assistance would address this problem by supplementing the income of those struggling to afford to live here, allowing some to afford rent and others to save for the future.

Other efforts to reverse the above trends have been ongoing: the Commonwealth Housing Task Force identified the above concerns in 2003; since then, a panoply of organizations have attempted to influence the market through public policy in one way or another. These organizations include:

These actors are well represented in the housing policy discussion; many provided ample research support to Roosevelt Institute | Boston throughout our policy series. At the end of the day, however, it is local residents that largely make decisions regarding new development in their own neighborhoods.

Many of these decisions are made before a housing project is even proposed through zoning regulations. Zoning laws prescribe the lot size, house size, family size (multifamily vs single family), and other building characteristics. Zoning laws are largely determined and reformed at the local level, though generally require approval by the Attorney General (Boston is one significant exception). Local authority for zoning power is derived in General Laws Chapter 40A.

Through our research, we found that zoning has both positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, zoning separates and protects residential areas from noisy or polluting entities, such as industrial plants.


On the other hand, zoning laws and zoning board decisions are often used to stymie development. Unfortunately, misperceptions about the effects of Affordable or Smart Growth construction cause some property owners to believe that the value in their home will decrease with additional projects. Thus, to protect their investment, residents may oppose any development.  

In Norwood, for example, a Smart Growth project that sought a zoning variance was voted down after 90 voted for and 73 against.

As seen in this example, exceptions to area zoning often requires a 2/3rds majority and the Norwood project did not have enough votes to push the project through. In many other cases, zoning regulations prevent multifamily housing development altogether.

It is for this reason members of the Roosevelt Institute | Boston voted to focus on increasing public participation of zoning meetings: we aim to bring more people out to vote for projects, thereby increasing the chance for development, increasing the supply of housing, and in the long run, lowering the overall price.

In the meantime, Progressive Mass members can contact the House Ways and Means Committee and urge them to pass zoning reform bill HB1859/4065.

See where the Governor candidates stand on housing reform issues here, for Lieutenant Governor here, for Attorney General here, and for Treasurer here.

Sign our petition here

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