About the Roundtable
On March 23, 2023, BPC’s J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy hosted a roundtable discussion in Boston in partnership with Children’s HealthWatch, Boston Medical Center, and the Boston University School of Public Health. The purpose of the roundtable was to better understand and identify local challenges and opportunities for increasing the supply of affordable homes in Greater Boston, the region including the city of Boston and nearby cities and towns.
A group of housing stakeholders—including representatives from local for-profit and non-profit housing developers, housing advocacy groups, community-based organizations, government, and academia—attended. To encourage an open dialogue, the roundtable discussion was governed by the Chatham House Rule, meaning the discussion cannot be attributed to individuals or organizations.
Below are five key takeaways from the roundtable discussion, as well as key questions for federal policymakers that are informed by the specific housing affordability challenges facing Boston.
Despite robust economic growth in recent decades, incomes for low- and middle-income families in Greater Boston have remained stagnant while housing prices have steadily increased, resulting in severe housing cost burdens for many residents.[i] Almost half of Greater Boston renter households pay more than one-third of their income on housing, as do more than a quarter of homeowners. Across the state, the lowest-income households face the greatest housing cost burdens, with the fewest affordable homes available to them. Black and Hispanic households are also cost-burdened at greater rates and have lower rates of homeownership, while segregation remains persistent across much of the region.
Rising housing costs in Boston have coincided with an increase in economic inequality and a decline in the city’s middle-income population. The number of middle-income households living in the city of Boston decreased by 15,000 between 1990 and 2018, while the number of low- and high-income households increased substantially over the same period. The housing market in Boston today does not serve middle-income households well: Currently, the median-earning household in Boston would have to spend more than 50% of its income to afford the median rent, which is more than $3,000 a month in Boston—nearly 50% higher than the national median. Meanwhile, owning a home is increasingly out of reach for first-generation, middle-income families: as of April 2023, the median home list price in Boston was nearly $750,000, up from about $500,000 in 2018.
Greater Boston’s high housing costs are largely driven by an inability to build enough new homes over the last few decades to keep up with growing regional demand—a trend shared by other high-demand cities home to booming job growth, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The region has permitted fewer homes in recent years than it did in the mid-1980s, despite a steadily rising population. According to a report from Up For Growth, Greater Boston is about 77,000 homes short of meeting regional demand as of 2019. An analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found there were only 66 available and affordable homes for every 100 extremely-low-income households in the city of Boston, also in 2019. The lack of available and affordable homes threatens to push current residents to relocate to more affordable parts of New England or the U.S., a trend that has plagued other parts of the country and hindered economic growth.
At the same time, the city of Boston has seen an increase in housing development over the past decade, rebounding after a dip in housing production during the 2008 financial crisis, according to data from the Mayor’s Office of Housing. Since 2014, the city of Boston has produced 64% of new housing units in the Greater Boston region, despite making up only 39% of the population.
1. High construction costs undermine affordability.
Roundtable participants cited the high cost of construction as a major challenge to housing development in Boston, with the costs of labor and the shortage of construction workers as major drivers. In recent years, Massachusetts has had one of the largest shortages of construction workers in the nation. Some participants noted that union wages also raised the cost of construction. Others noted the lack of a construction worker pipeline to fill the needed roles and the need for skills training for young people.
Participants said innovation in the construction industry is necessary to increase productivity. To that end, they were watching developments in California, a similarly high-cost region, utilizing off-site construction and modular housing and the potential of such housing innovations to reduce costs while maintaining quality.
Participants indicated that Greater Boston has failed to make reducing high housing construction costs a policy priority. The region would benefit from a concerted effort to address construction costs, bringing unions and construction workers together with developers to advance solutions that maintain fair pay and worker protections while lowering costs to make affordable housing pencil out financially.
- Key questions for federal policymakers: High housing costs are a major challenge across much of the country. How can the federal government support low-cost, high-quality construction? How can federal policy help to build up a labor force to support housing construction? Are there opportunities to support construction jobs for Black and Hispanic workers? What policy levers do Congress and the administration possess that would help drive innovation in housing construction technology? Can the federal government support low- or zero-carbon construction solutions that are affordable?
2. Meaningful progress has been made on land use and zoning reform.
Like many other metro areas, Boston’s restrictive land use and zoning practices make denser, more affordable housing illegal. Exclusionary policies are particularly prominent in whiter, high-opportunity neighborhoods, resulting in segregation by race and income. Historically, Boston has failed to allow for dense land development near access to transit and jobs, where demand for housing is greatest, exacerbating road congestion. Participants noted that NIMBYism (local opposition to affordable housing development) is persistent in many Greater Boston communities.
While there is much work to be done, zoning reform is off to a promising start in Boston. In 2021, the state passed a law requiring “MBTA communities” (those served by the regional transit system) to adopt a zoning district near transit access that permits multifamily housing by-right, allowing at least 15 units per acre. Participants were enthusiastic about the new law as a means to increase the capacity for affordable housing in the Boston area.
While most communities have initiated plans to comply with the law, several failed to submit action plans to meet the new requirements on time, indicating that local opposition to affordable housing remains persistent. Some participants noted that enforcement against exclusionary zoning is critical and should be treated as a civil rights issue.
- Key questions for federal housing policymakers: Land use and zoning decisions occur primarily at the local level. What steps can the federal government take to support land use and zoning reform? Are there potential incentives that Congress and the administration could deploy to encourage states and local governments to support greater housing density in opportunity-rich neighborhoods and roll back exclusionary policies?
3. Aging housing stock requires preservation.
Massachusetts’ housing stock is among the oldest in the U.S., with much of it at risk of falling into disrepair. Preserving the existing stock is necessary to maintain the supply of affordable homes while repair and rehabilitation work will be necessary to ensure these homes remain safe and suitable for habitation. In Massachusetts, over 30% of housing was built before 1940, more than double the national rate, while only 11% of the state’s housing has been built in the 21st century. Much of the older housing stock is not accessible to older adults or people with disabilities and poses health and safety risks.
While preserving a home is generally more cost-effective than new construction, it can still require expensive repairs and rehabilitation. For low- and middle-income homeowners already struggling with high housing costs, home repairs can be burdensome and difficult to finance.
Participants also emphasized the importance of preserving Boston’s public housing. While the debate over whether to build new public housing can be contentious, existing public housing is an important component of Boston’s affordable housing stock and home to many of its most vulnerable households, necessitating sustained investment. Participants agreed that there are not enough resources devoted to taking care of the city’s public housing: Boston receives just $35 million in capital funds annually to address a backlog of deferred capital maintenance projects totaling $1.5 billion.
- Key questions for federal housing policymakers: How can the federal government support affordable housing preservation? Specifically, what should Congress and the administration do to help both public housing agencies and low- to moderate-income homeowners repair and rehabilitate aging affordable homes? Can greater private investment be utilized to maintain public housing? Are there opportunities to preserve other types of affordable housing, such as community land trusts?
4. Boston has a high level of income-restricted housing compared to other cities.
Participants emphasized that income-restricted housing is critical to support low-income households in Boston and prevent homelessness and housing instability. This income-restricted housing includes public housing as well as housing financed with the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) and state subsidies. As of 2021, 19% of the housing stock in Boston was income restricted, the highest percentage of any major city in the United States. In 2021, over one-third of new units built were income restricted.
Still, participants noted that income-restricted housing is insufficient: Public housing, project-based vouchers, and other income-restricted housing have a waiting list of over 37,000 households in Boston alone. Participants also said that income-restricted housing is largely limited to certain communities, exacerbating concentrated poverty and segregation. Expanding income-restricted housing to high-opportunity neighborhoods is important to give low-income households greater choice in where they live.
Growing the income-restricted housing stock is a challenge. New public housing development is essentially at a standstill and the LIHTC is the engine of affordable housing development—but there are more affordable housing projects in the pipeline than the LIHTC can finance. LIHTC financing is also complicated for developers to utilize, generally necessitating the layering of multiple sources of financing and subsidies. Additionally, participants also noted that many low-income families struggle to make the leap from public housing or income-restricted housing to unsubsidized housing in the private market, due to limited economic mobility and inadequate incomes.
- Key questions for federal housing policymakers: Should the federal government expand programs intended to help finance new, affordable rental homes and spread investments across more communities? How can the LIHTC be simplified or streamlined to enhance its impact and make it more accessible to affordable housing developers? Beyond the LIHTC, are there innovative solutions the federal government can support to help develop and preserve affordable housing?[ii] Is there anything Congress or the administration can do to make it easier for low-income households to transition from income-restricted housing to non-subsidized housing, including home ownership?
5. Rental assistance is impactful but could be enhanced.
While much of the roundtable discussion focused on the housing supply challenges in Boston, participants agreed that increasing supply alone is not sufficient to serve low-income households—rental assistance is an essential part of ensuring housing affordability in the city. In Boston, 20,000 families receive tenant-based housing vouchers, including through federally- and state-funded programs. Participants noted that vouchers are difficult to obtain in Boston, with long waiting periods, as is true across much of the nation.
In Boston, it is illegal for landlords to discriminate against voucher holders when accepting tenants. Despite this prohibition, research indicates that landlords in the city refuse to lease to voucher holders at high rates. Participants said the inspection process, which is statutorily required for all apartments leased to voucher holders, discourages landlords from accepting vouchers.
The Cambridge Housing Authority has taken steps to improve landlords’ experiences with the program, offering damage and vacancy payments for landlords that lease to voucher holders and conducting landlord surveys to determine areas for improvement to improve landlord service satisfaction. Greater resources to help landlords renovate units prior to inspections would help to incentivize more landlords to accept vouchers, as would a more efficient process for inspections and renovations that prevent lengthy vacancies of units. Participants also noted that Small Area Fair Market Rents make voucher holders more competitive applicants for housing. One participant said it would be very impactful for the realtor community to promote vouchers to landlords because of their influence in the region and stated that realtors should be better educated about the program.
Even when families obtain a voucher, they then must contend with the “cliff effect.” Since many subsidy programs, such as the Housing Choice Voucher program, are income-based, an increase in income can threaten a household’s ability to retain its housing benefits. Some voucher recipients may choose to work fewer hours or turn down a job promotion for fear that they will lose their housing benefits—because even with a greater income, securing housing they can afford may be difficult or even impossible without a voucher.
- Key questions for federal housing policymakers: How can the federal government enhance and improve rental assistance programs? How can Congress or the administration encourage more landlords to participate in the Housing Choice Voucher program? How can the federal government improve landlords’ experience with the voucher program and facilitate efficient upgrades and renovations? How can the federal government support low-income households that want to accept a new job, pay raise, or promotion without jeopardizing housing security?
The difficulties facing Boston in promoting housing affordability are shared by many other high-cost, high-demand cities—places that have experienced strong job and economic growth but have not increased the supply of housing to accommodate demand. Low-income communities are vulnerable to housing instability because government support programs that can provide stability, such as housing vouchers, are difficult to access. At the same time, high housing costs are a burden for middle-income households—a shrinking demographic in Boston—as well as families that do not qualify for subsidies yet often cannot afford homeownership in such an expensive housing market.
The findings of this roundtable outline some of the primary challenges that state and local leaders in Massachusetts must tackle to improve housing affordability for Greater Boston. These findings should also inform federal housing policy to support residents burdened by high housing costs in cities that have failed to meet the soaring demand for housing.
The J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy would like to thank Dr. Megan Sandel, Dr. Stephanie Ettinger de Cuba, and Allison Bovell-Ammon from Children’s HealthWatch, Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Public Health as well as all our roundtable experts—including representatives from the City of Boston, the Boston Housing Authority, as well as Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA), Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), Harborlight Community Partners, Cruz Companies, 2Life Communities, Abundant Housing MA, Massachusetts Housing Partnership, Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance, Harvard University Joint Center for Housing Studies, and Housing Forward MA.
The Center thanks the Melville Charitable Trust and Conrad N. Hilton Foundation for their generous support of our work. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this report—as well as any errors—are ours alone.
[i] Greater Boston consists of the city of Boston as well as the surrounding cities and town in eastern Massachusetts. The Boston Foundation’s descriptive data of Greater Boston includes over 100 jurisdictions.
[ii] One participant suggested deed-restrictions with time limits as a tool to preserve the long-term affordability of units for low-income households.
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