Climate, housing activists find common ground on tax

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Climate, housing activists find common ground on tax
Housing in Chinatown.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Gov. Charlie Baker made waves when he announced a proposal to increase the real estate deeds excise tax by 50 percent to help fund critical municipal climate resilience projects.

The environmental community was pleasantly surprised to hear the governor offer a clear, new funding stream to help prepare our communities for the many harmful impacts of climate change. The affordable housing community, on the other hand, was caught off-guard in a less pleasant way.

Housing justice advocates have been eyeing similar revenue streams to fund affordable housing, and were surprised to see proposals to divert funding from housing toward an important but separate problem. It would be as if the governor had proposed using a carbon tax to fund education – a valuable investment, to be sure, but one that would disappoint climate activists, who have been eyeing carbon tax revenue to fund the just transition away from fossil fuels.

Climate and housing justice groups are proud to have come together to offer a solution that we hope will work for everyone: Double the real estate transfer fee to equally fund affordable housing and climate resilience.

Together, we thank Baker for his thoughtful leadership on climate resilience. From sea level rise and spreading diseases to heat waves and hurricanes, climate change will have tremendous, deep impacts on society. Through his Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, Baker is the first governor in the United States to lay out and execute a plan to support communities to be more resilient in the face of climate impacts. Similarly, the governor has recognized that we face a housing crisis, and has provided some leadership with his Housing Choice Bill. In both cases, this leadership is necessary and it is appreciated. And it is also incomplete.

The governor’s climate policy is incomplete in two key ways. First, it does not do anything to reduce Massachusetts’s climate pollution, and the governor needs to offer better and stronger leadership in this area, or else we will have much worse climate impacts that we will struggle to adapt to. Second, the policy fails to pay sufficient attention to social resilience. This article will focus on that second shortcoming. The governor’s housing policy is similarly incomplete, in particular by failing to identify a clear revenue stream for additional affordable housing for our state and set standards for affordable housing and tenant protection that address the heart of Commonwealth’s housing crisis.

Boston’s Chinatown is a good example of how we can no longer adopt the model of “building our way out of the crisis.” While Chinatown’s housing stock doubled from 2000 to 2015, the bulk of the new housing was luxury units, and the increase in affordable housing was only about 15 percent. Not only is the new housing inaccessible to most existing residents, but existing units are as well. Chinatown’s row house and private housing traditionally provided affordable housing for working families, but this has slowly turned to market rate and is now unaffordable for most working families. Following the influx of luxury developments and the increase in short-term rentals, speculation has been heightened even more. For example, some of the row house apartments with three bedrooms that used to rent for $1,800 per month five years ago are now marketed at $5,000 per month. Our communities are increasingly unaffordable for the people who call them home, and besides being a crisis unto itself, this has grave implications for our Commonwealth’s climate resilience.

Housing advocate Karen Chen says investors are buying up entire buildings in her neighborhood and converting them to Airbnb rentals, squeezing
families out of the market.

In the past, when people thought about preparing for climate change, they mostly focused on building stronger and sturdier roads, bridges, and tunnels. More recently, enlightened thinkers have recognized the equal, if not greater, importance of “green infrastructure” – the natural wetlands, tree canopies, open spaces, and other natural features that help us deal with heat, flooding, and other climate impacts.

Yet many still fail to recognize that some of the strongest assets we have to get us through climate change are our friends, neighbors, and families. The strength of our social networks determines how well, and indeed if, we make it through climate impacts. This is not just just feel-good thinking. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg documented in his book Heat Wave: a Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, the greatest predictor of casualties in a particularly deadly heat wave was not expected predictors of social vulnerability like poverty, but rather social isolation. Neighborhoods with the strongest social networks were the least likely to suffer losses to the heat wave compared to neighborhoods with weaker community ties.

This is why we recognize that affordable housing for all is becoming even more of a vital necessity for communities in the 21st century. Already, we are sacrificing people’s dignity and livelihoods as unaffordable rents and mortgages force people from their homes. As climate impacts worsen, we will increasingly be sacrificing their lives.

If your entire social network is in a community like Chinatown, and the increasingly high price of rent means that you are priced out of your own community, you are not just forced to leave behind the pieces of brick, wood, and concrete that you call your physical home. You are forced to leave behind your community – the network of social ties of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who you are interdependent upon, and who can participate in mutual aid in the lead-up to, during, and after extreme weather events and other stressors of climate change.

How resilient are our communities if the most vulnerable members can no longer afford to live within them, and instead have to relocate 20, 30, or 50 miles away? And to make things worse, when people move away from their community, oftentimes their commute to and from work increases as well. Longer commutes are both more vulnerable to climate change (the farther you travel, the easier it is for extreme weather to disrupt your commute) and make climate change impacts worse (the farther you travel, the more energy you consume and the more you pollute).

The solution is to ensure that our communities remain whole so that all members of our community can be resilient in the face of the climate crisis. For this reason, we are proud to be part of a growing coalition of housing and climate advocates calling for modifications to the governor’s proposed increase of the deeds excise tax. Instead of increasing the tax by 50 percent, we are calling for the tax to be doubled, with the proceeds being split, 50 percent for the Governor’s Global Warming Solutions Trust Fund, and 50 percent for affordable housing (specifically, with 30 percent going to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and 20 percent to the Housing Preservation and Stabilization Fund).

Thankfully, because our deeds excise tax is so low, we can afford to double the tax and still be below the regional average. Indeed, the deeds excise tax has not been raised in 50 years, and doubling it would still have us be below rates in states such as Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York.

We have a critical moment in history right now to make significant strides forward on climate change and affordable housing. The governor’s proposal should be expanded to include equal funding for affordable housing. The impacts of climate change will change society, whether we like it or not. As we prepare for them, we have the opportunity to define what kind of future we want to build. United among housing, community and environmental groups, we call on our governor and our legislative leaders to unambiguously declare that as Massachusetts readies to rise to face the climate challenge, we are just as ready to invest in our people as we are in our infrastructure.

Doubling the deeds excise tax to equally fund climate resilience and affordable housing will not solve either issue – to do right by both, more funds will be required – but it takes us several steps down the right path toward a better future, and with both the climate crisis and the affordable housing crisis, there’s no time to wait.

Craig S. Altemose is executive director of the Better Future Project, home of 350 Massachusetts and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW). Karen Y. Chen is executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association.