RECENT HIGH-PROFILE opposition to new housing has many wondering whether Massachusetts has lost its appetite for ramping up housing production. Last year, we saw the bipartisan passage of the Baker administration’s Housing Choice Initiative, which is set to bring fundamental changes to zoning laws across the greater Boston region. This year, we have seen several stories about opposition to new housing in places ranging from urban Cambridge to suburban Swampscott.
Does this signal the beginning of the end for efforts to expand the Commonwealth’s housing supply? A new Manhattan Institute-Echelon Insights survey of residents in 20 major metropolitan areas tells a different story. It asked 200 Greater Boston residents their thoughts about the state of housing in the region. The results are clear: Public support for tackling the housing affordability crisis remains high.
Only 14 percent of respondents rated current housing affordability in their region as good or very good – the lowest rating among all the regions surveyed. Moreover, 67 percent reported that they were concerned or extremely concerned about the cost of housing. This concern topped all other issues, including taxes, public safety, school quality, and even COVID-19, on the public radar.
This support extends to specific policies aimed at increasing housing production with the goal of making it more affordable. An overwhelming majority (70 percent+) agreed that we need to allow more housing to be built near transit stops as well as the need to expedite and streamline the permitting process to make it easier to build more homes. Both were key provisions in the Housing Choice law passed last year.
The disconnect between headlines about housing opposition and public polling support for housing can be traced to our outdated public commenting process. Research from a group of Boston University political scientists finds that planning board and zoning board of appeal meetings in Massachusetts are dominated by a vocal minority of housing opponents who do not accurately represent their communities in terms of both demographics and their positions on housing. The reality is that there is a silent majority who continues to support the need to build more homes.
Pro-housing policymakers should rest assured that they have their constituents’ support. Going forward, two important issues still require their attention. First, the Department of Housing and Community Development is still in the process of providing guidance on what municipalities need to do in order to comply with the House Choice law’s new rule requiring zoning that allow for more density around MBTA stations. These guidelines must be clear enough for well-intentioned communities to act upon and robust enough to prevent evasion by unwilling exclusionary communities.
Second, federal funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act presents state and local policymakers with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to boost funding for affordable housing that offers homes to our senior, veterans, and families in need. Dedicating a small portion of that funding to rental housing production would enable residential and nonprofit developers to contribute to the promise of more inclusionary communities across the Commonwealth.
Economists at Freddie Mac recently calculated each state’s housing deficit and found that Massachusetts ranks 7th in terms of housing deficit as a proportion of existing housing stock. We have a long way to go to meet demand and we need every tool at our disposal to reach those goals. Policymakers have the public’s support and should not falter now.
Joshua McCabe is the advocacy & education coordinator with Harborlight Community Partners, a nonprofit that builds and manages affordable housing across the North Shore.