It’s time to act on housing

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It’s time to act on housing
January 13, 2018

THE 347 FAMILIES living in the Fairlawn apartments in Mattapan have good reason to be scared. Last year, when the owner put the property on the market, city officials worked with a well-respected non-profit developer with the intent to buy the building and keep it affordable for the residents. Instead, the owner sold the building to an affiliate of The DSF Group of Waltham for $65 million – the same price offered by the non-profit. The property rents have already started to go up $200 to $300.

This is not an isolated story.

Hard working families across the Commonwealth are receiving eviction notices as rents increase. Every day investors outbid families by offering cash to sellers seeking to capitalize on today’s high home prices. Every day the problem gets worse and we lose opportunities to address the crisis.

The time for action is now.

Thankfully, Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed an ambitious housing policy platform designed to create 16,000 net new affordable homes in Boston by 2030. Simultaneously, Gov. Charlie Baker and several legislative leaders have put forward proposals to address this challenge statewide. Together, these proposals can help advance what we call a Four-Step Agenda for alleviating the housing crisis.

Step One – Protect tenants facing eviction and displacement

Mayor Walsh has proposed legislation to prevent circumstances like the Fairlawn sale by giving tenants the right to partner with a developer to purchase their own buildings when owners put them up for sale. Modeled after existing Massachusetts laws that apply to subsidized housing and mobile home parks, this law would help retain apartments for working-class families and seniors. Tenants would have to match offers from other potential buyers, ensuring that owners would receive a fair price and tenants would not be displaced.

The mayor also has proposed legislation granting every low-income tenant in Massachusetts the right to legal counsel when facing an eviction. Currently, landlords almost always have an attorney, while tenants rarely do. This imbalance yields predictable results.

Step Two – Secure new revenue to fund affordable housing

Compared to the 40 percent dedicated to health care, only one percent of the state’s operating budget goes towards housing, even though poor housing is one of the key social factors undermining good health.

To address this disparity, the mayor has proposed legislation to strengthen the city’s linkage program, which requires commercial developers to contribute funds toward affordable housing and job training. The mayor also wants to incorporate the successful inclusionary development program into the city’s zoning ordinance to ensure that all new housing developments include affordable units. Finally, Mayor Walsh is joining a statewide coalition to increase the state’s contribution to the Community Preservation Act.

These actions move the needle in Boston, but we also need new revenue sources – both operating dollars from the state budget and capital dollars – to dramatically expand the supply of affordable rental and homeownership opportunities across the Commonwealth.

Step Three – Fix our zoning and land use laws so we can expand housing opportunities

Comprehensive zoning reform makes it easier for municipalities to build new housing (as proposed in Gov. Baker’s Housing Choice bill) and creates the incentives and penalties necessary to ensure that other communities add new housing, especially multifamily in smart growth locations. Thankfully, there are promising bills now pending in the State House that would do just that.

Step Four – Restore abandoned and poor-quality housing in weak housing markets

While much of our state faces rapidly rising home prices, Gateway Cities and rural communities struggle with weak real estate markets, where low rents and declining values make it difficult to maintain an aging housing stock. Rep. Antonio Cabral and Sen. Brendan Crighton have filed legislation calling for an ambitious neighborhood stabilization initiative to put older properties back to use, thereby taking market pressure away from neighborhoods facing gentrification.

We urge leaders in local and state government to take additional steps to address the housing crisis facing these areas. Now is the time to enact a comprehensive four-step housing agenda that protects tenants, generates revenue for affordable housing, expands housing opportunities, and restores hope to struggling communities.

As our neighbors in Mattapan can attest, we can’t wait any longer.

Joseph Kriesberg is president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado is chair of the MACDC board of directors and CEO of IBA—Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, a Boston-based community building nonprofit.