|For those of us who live in the Greater Boston area, we are fortunate to have a remarkably interesting place to call home. Many outstanding universities; arguably the leading center for medicine in the entire United States; a high tech sector that rivals Silicon Valley for innovation and creates enormous opportunities and high-paying jobs for those who are qualified; interesting locations to explore abound in every direction in this remarkable region of the country; a rich cultural life exists here; and so much more about our communities is appealing.|
Yet when it comes to certain societal challenges, those same attractive qualities in our corner of the world have made us a victim of our own success. And this is true in other major city centers around the United States. Two major ways in which that reality has manifested is a level of traffic and congestion that makes our roads some of the most crowded and difficult to travel in the entire country, and also the incredibly high cost of housing which could be characterized fairly now as a true housing crisis for many. And so while I have written about transportation issues previously (and will no doubt again), I am using this month’s newsletter to talk about some of the things the Legislature has done to help address our housing challenges, ideas pending in this legislative session to tackle our housing needs going forward and housing protections for those most vulnerable among us.
Housing is an enormously complex area of public policy. There are 1) a wide variety of state and federal agencies and programs that help set housing policy, 2) intricate zoning law issues, 3) various tax credits and incentives; 4) the interests of the private sector, and 5) of course a wide variety of different types of housing, public and private. Despite the complexity, it seems clear that housing production, zoning law, and tenant protections are the three areas of law and policy that are ripe for action and reform. In terms of our housing production, Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates in the country. In contrast, our population and employment rates are substantially increasing. A recent study shows that Massachusetts has added 246,000 new residents to our population since 2010, while only providing 81,000 housing units. Our housing supply does not match the current demand, and the demand is increasing yearly. Simply put, we need more housing. For this reason, I filed An Act Setting a Housing Production Goal for the Commonwealth. The legislation would establish a goal of creating about 20,000 new homes in Massachusetts every year through 2040. The bill also sets a goal of having at least 20% affordable units of total housing produced. The legislation would not set any mandate, but rather, it sets a goal that we can measure our progress towards. The bill has gained a tremendous amount of support from the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, and I am pleased to have their backing.
Despite the Legislature’s commitment to providing affordable housing programs, to achieve effective housing production in Massachusetts, we must also consider zoning reform. An Act Relative to Housing Reform proposes a series of zoning reforms that would allow for greater density and increased housing production. Clearly, some of the concepts in the bill deserve careful consideration, including an “as of right” ability for homeowners to build accessory dwelling units (the so-called in-law apartment) and lowering the voting threshold for local zoning changes to a simple majority vote of the local legislative body. Additionally, the Legislature has noticed unfair zoning practices in instances where cities and towns use zoning bylaws to discriminate and deny developments that include affordable housing units for families. An Act Relative to Promoting Fair Housing by Preventing Discrimination Against Affordable Housing would add zoning, permitting, or other actions used to limit affordable housing to this list discriminatory land-use practices at the state or local level. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act introduced federal regulations outlawing the refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, disability, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin. As our society has developed since then, so have the many different forms of discrimination. Today, tenants face discrimination based on the source of income, disability, familial status, or criminal records. And in some cases, tenants are denied because eviction case records are open to the public, making them available for landlords and property owners to access during the screening process and — for those with past evictions — this limits their chances of obtaining affordable housing. An Act promoting housing opportunity and mobility through eviction sealing (HOMES) would seal records from Housing Court. It’s clear that some of our current housing policies are flawed and lack inclusiveness. Some individuals and families have dealt with wrongful housing rejection and unfair evictions.
In addition to measures to increase housing production, we need to do more to protect the rights of those low-income individuals who face the impact of our housing shortage and high cost of living. Clearly, part of that puzzle is an equal measure of justice when in the court system. Our Pledge of Allegiance concludes with the promise of “justice for all.” Yet the truth is that, despite this high-minded ideal, our society often falls short of living up to that guarantee. That is why I filed, An Act Establishing a Right to Counsel in Certain Eviction Cases. This legislation will create a major new civil right: a right to a lawyer for indigent individuals facing eviction. To better understand these cases, my staff and I recently spent the day at Housing Court observing and participating in the Volunteer Lawyers Project at the Edward Brook Courthouse. In fact, one of the lawyers on my staff took a case on the spot. This remarkable organization provides dedicated volunteer lawyers who provide legal assistance to low-income tenants and landlords. Our Housing Court is an overwhelming place for low-income individuals facing eviction, and for low-income landlords as well. And unlike other forms of litigation, eviction litigation is fast-paced, and tenants quickly lose rights if they do not assert them promptly. It is time to create a significant new civil right, so when we say “and justice for all,” we mean it.
There should not be much debate around why eviction cases in Massachusetts have increased over 85% during the past decade. Today, prices in Massachusetts are often not affordable, even to middle-class families. Many of our young people and seniors cannot stay in the communities where they have lived their whole lives. Up until 1994, only 3 out of 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth – Boston, Cambridge and Brookline – had implemented rent control. And those three cities would never have abolished it. So during that time, in an effort to circumvent local government, the real estate industry placed the question of eliminating rent control on a statewide ballot. Now that 25 years have gone by, we have seen an affordable housing crisis that is devastating some families and individuals. Many people throughout Massachusetts are paying over 50% of their income on rent, leaving some with little to nothing to spend on other essential needs. I filed An Act Relative to the Stabilization of Rents in Towns and Cities Facing Distress in the Housing Market to give cities and towns the decision to put it back in place. This bill will allow cities and towns to limit the annual increase in rents for most such dwelling units to the local yearly rate of inflation or 5 percent, whichever is less for those whose income is 80 percent or less of Area Median Income. Essentially, my bill is a “local option” bill and simply allows local governments to adopt rent control rules if they so choose. Given the housing crisis that has evolved since repeal, it is time to restart the conversation on rent control.
Outside of our low-income individuals and families struggling amid this housing crisis, our middle class is suffering too, especially in our senior communities. The economy has played a vital factor in the driving increase in the cost of living. Many people who retire can no longer expect to survive comfortably off of their pension checks. Today our seniors that retire and are on a fixed income face a financial crunch as taxes on their home continue to increase. In some cases, seniors continue to work part-time jobs beyond their retirement to make ends meet. Considering this at the beginning of the legislative session, I filed An Act Increasing the Property Tax Deferral for Seniors, with Senator Pat Jehlen. Certain homeowners 65 years of age and older currently have the option to defer paying their property taxes. Under existing law, this is a local option that is capped at $58,000 for the 2018 tax year. Given the high cost-of-living in Massachusetts, this is unrealistically low and penalizes ‘house rich and cash poor’ seniors living on a fixed income who exceed the income threshold. This legislation proposes increasing the local option cap to $80,000, allowing far more seniors to qualify for a tax deferral.
Despite the many challenges in housing that we face, the Legislature has made some progress in our efforts to solve the current housing crisis. The recently passed state budget represents some of the most significant increases seen in a generation when it comes to funding for housing and homelessness. This funding is vital for families and contributes to the well-being of both homeless parents and children. This year, the House continues these efforts by providing $110 million for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program (MRVP), which puts the state at a large 10% increase from last year. This program is essential because it provides individuals and families with a voucher for affordable housing and pays a certain percentage of the rent. The Legislature goes even further to ensure vouchers for rental assistance to non-elderly handicapped persons of low-income by investing $7.2 million for the Alternative Housing Voucher Program and also provides affordable housing units throughout the state for families by investing $72 million in public housing subsidies, which is also a 10% increase from last year. In Massachusetts, we also have a residential assistance for families in transition (RAFT) program. This program is essential and provides low-income families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless with temporary financial assistance. The assistance applies to moving costs, rent and utility payments, and even goes as far as paying a security deposit, or first/last month’s rent, and furniture. The state budget allocated more than $16 million to the RAFT program, a big increase and a sign of a strong commitment to the program.
On a personal note, when I first moved to Massachusetts, I found an apartment near Harvard Square. When I moved in, I was told by the rental agent that my landlord was a reasonable guy, happy with the rent and that I could expect nothing more than modest annual increases. The very next year, I was confronted with a 45% rent hike, leaving me with no choice but to move out (which brought about additional moving costs). This is still happening across the state to people who cannot afford it. Housing is a fundamental human need. Quality, affordable housing should be available to everyone in Massachusetts, especially during a thriving economy. Massachusetts has seen the job market improve substantially over the last decade; however, so has the cost of living, while wages for many have remained largely unchanged. People can no longer afford to live in the areas they were raised. Families are being displaced and, even worse, facing homelessness. Approximately 13,000 people in families with children are experiencing homelessness right now. That number is troubling. This should not be the norm, and this should not be the reality.
I will continue to advocate for affordable housing and look forward to the day when all families can pay their rent, mortgage or taxes without worrying about how they will also put food on the table. Thousands across our state our making those tough decisions every day. I know because I’ve met with them, helped them, and stood by them in rallies demanding reform. That goes to show how many people are challenged daily with housing instability due to the rising cost of living in Massachusetts. Access to safe, adequate, and affordable housing is essential and provides the foundation from which families and individuals can live successful lives.