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to improve state policy, foster effective community conversations and ensure that we meet our housing needs throughout Massachusetts.

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Our latest analyses of housing stats, migration trends, other related data and policy topics as well as anything we find interesting from our fellow data geeks.

The Housing Challenge

Here are some questions and answers about our housing production challenge in Massachusetts and what we can do about it.

How much housing do we need?

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The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) projects that Massachusetts needs to produce 500,000 housing units between 2010 and 2040 to maintain existing levels of employment without accommodating any significant job growth.  Two-thirds of that projected housing demand is for multifamily homes, much of it in metro Boston’s inner core and in close suburbs with good access to jobs and transportation.  To further expand our state economy we would need to produce even more housing in order to attract new workers from outside the region.

Massachusetts is already about 38,000 units short of meeting its existing housing demand.  That housing gap will significantly widen as a million workers retire from the labor force by 2030 and additional housing is needed for new workers to take their place.       

How much are we actually producing?

To meet the long-term housing demand projected by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council Massachusetts would need to average at least 17,000 new housing units permitted each year between 2010 and 2040.  The state has fallen short of that goal in six out of the last seven years.

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If we keep up our current pace of housing construction the Commonwealth will be more than 90,000 units short of demand by 2030.

It may seem like a lot of housing construction is going on -- especially in and around downtown Boston – but in fact our annual housing production is only about half of what it was in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. We permit 36 percent less new housing per capita than the national average, ranking us 38 out of the 50 states.

What are the barriers to new housing?

The most significant barrier to new housing in Massachusetts is restrictive zoning and other local land use regulation.  In most states development is regulated at the regional or county level.  In Massachusetts it is regulated by 351 individual cities and towns, each with their own zoning and environmental codes.  There is no requirement that local zoning in Massachusetts be based on long-term planning or that it be consistent with the needs of the state as a whole.  Without those constraints, it’s understandable that local elected officials often try to slow or stop housing development because that’s what voters ask and expect of them.  

This pattern is really clear with respect to multifamily housing (such as apartments and townhouses), which is needed in every community and represents about two-thirds of the state’s overall housing need.  Zoning for multifamily housing used to be commonplace in Massachusetts and now has become a rarity.  Half of all the multifamily housing permitted in Massachusetts over the last five years was located in just four cities and towns: Boston, Cambridge, Everett and Watertown.  Meanwhile 210 cities and towns have gone for a decade or longer without permitting any multifamily housing of five units or more.

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Resistance to new housing often takes the form of “downzoning”: changing the rules to allow housing development in fewer places or at lower densities than allowed in the past. Many of the most desirable neighborhoods in the Commonwealth (such as Hemlock Road in Newton – see picture) could not be built again today because local zoning has become so much more restrictive. Discretionary zoning codes which require housing developers to apply for special permits (as opposed to being allowed to build in appropriate locations “as of right”) also contribute to the problem by making local decision-makers susceptible to community pressure. 

How does a shortage of housing adversely affect the state economy?

Inadequate housing supply drives up the cost of housing, which makes Massachusetts a less attractive place to live and work than other states with a lower cost of living.  That’s particularly true for younger workers who are deciding where to advance their careers and start families.  One of our biggest competitive advantages is the education level of our workforce and our concentration of knowledge-based industries.  Yet among our peer group -- the 20 U.S. metro areas with the highest concentration of innovation jobs – metro Boston ranks near the bottom on housing production, near the top on housing costs, and experiences a net loss of population to its domestic competitors.

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Economists engaged by MHP and at several Boston-area universities, UC Berkeley and the University of Chicago and the Federal Reserve Board, among others, have all found that high housing costs and regulatory restrictions that suppress new housing production result in outmigration and slower job growth.  

Who is harmed the most by high costs and inadequate housing supply?

Lower income people are harmed the most.  When housing supply is artificially constrained by zoning and other land use regulations it drives up rents and home prices across the entire housing market. While everyone is affected by increased housing costs, those increases are much more harmful to lower income households who pay the highest percentage of their income on housing.

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Rising costs and inadequate housing supply harms employers, too, because it makes it more difficult to recruit and retain qualified workers.  That makes it less likely that employers will choose to expand in Massachusetts over the long term.  Without an increase in housing production that problem will worsen over the next 10-12 years as a million baby boomers are expected to retire from the Massachusetts workforce and new housing is needed for workers to fill those jobs. 

Can we build more housing, and reduce traffic gridlock, protect the enviroment and preserve open space?

Yes, if our local land use regulation in Massachusetts adapts to allow construction of the kinds of housing that most homebuyers and renters are looking for. An economic analysis for MHP found that if we simply allowed new housing to be built at densities similar to the rest of the U.S. we could build enough housing to bring our supply and demand in balance while preserving more open space and consuming substantially less undeveloped land to support our growth. 

The only practical way to build enough housing to meet the Commonwealth’s needs is for most new housing to be multifamily and for most of it to be located near public transit or in walkable neighborhoods near town and neighborhood centers.  To do that we also need to expand public transit service and increase its reliability.  Unfortunately there is no complete or reliable baseline data in Massachusetts to determine how much new housing is currently being built in smart locations, of what type, and at what density.  Beginning this year the state’s collection of detailed property assessment data from each city and town on an annual basis will enable MHP’s Center for Housing Data and others to measure new housing production against key metrics and make it possible to set much more meaningful state, regional and local housing goals.

Most but not all of the new housing we need in Massachusetts is likely be located in cities and towns with existing water and sewer services, including those served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.  We also need new housing in communities served by commuter rail and other public transit that do not have that infrastructure in place.  A number of those cities and towns have adopted local zoning and septic regulations that promote single-family homes on large lots while making it difficult or impossible to build multifamily housing at reasonable densities near transit stops and town centers.  Some common-sense changes in state policy would help eliminate those barriers to new housing while actually enhancing environmental protection.

What will it take to turn our housing situation around?

In Massachusetts there are two general approaches we can take to be sure we’re producing enough housing in the right places. 

First we can convince friends, neighbors and local elected officials in each city and town to plan for new housing, to support new housing that is being proposed, and to change zoning and other local regulations to promote new housing in the right places.  Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative is designed to help cities and towns make those changes and to provide financial rewards to communities that have adopted best practices and are contributing the most toward our housing supply.

Second, we can change state laws to eliminate unreasonable barriers to new housing and to ensure that every city and town plans for growth and adopts sensible zoning and land use regulations that facilitate the new housing we need to support a healthy growing economy. One such bill is Governor Baker’s Act to Promote Housing Choices, which would allow cities and towns to adopt zoning changes that promote new housing by a simple majority vote, rather than a two-thirds vote of town meeting or city or town council.  Some other changes in state law now being considered by the Legislature would require every city and town to identify locations where multifamily housing is allowed, eliminate barriers to accessory dwelling units (e.g., “in-law apartments”), require cities and towns to demonstrate that local septic and wetlands regulations that exceed state standards have a valid environmental justification.

What can I do personally to make a difference?

1.      Stay on top of what’s happening with housing in your own community.  That might involve reading a local paper, following local housing issues on social media, or getting a news feed from a local group.

2.      Show up to hearings and meetings in your community where housing is being discussed. That might be a planning board meeting, a neighborhood association meeting, or a hearing about a specific project. Too often, a small group of people opposed to new development, are the only ones to show up and speak. It is very helpful to have a variety of voices in the room. By attending you can learn more about what’s being proposed, get a better understanding of the local process, and possibly add your voice to the pro side, which can create a useful negotiation and help elected officials.

3.      Talk to your local and state elected officials about the importance of new housing. Find out where they stand.  A few communities, like Boston and Somerville, have set ambitious housing production goals but many others have not. Find opportunities to talk to your state representative and state senator, your mayor and city councilor (if you live in a city), or your select board and planning board members (if you live in a town).  If you’re uncomfortable making a call or scheduling a meeting, bring it up when you see them at public events in your community.  Tell your local elected officials that you want your community to plan for new housing and that you expect them to publicly support new housing even in the face of neighborhood opposition.  Tell your representative and senator what kinds of changes in state law you would support and remind them that every city and town needs to do its part to meet our statewide housing needs.

4.      Talk to your friends and family so they better understand the need for more housing.  It’s especially important that they understand why new housing is needed to keep jobs in Massachusetts and understand how decisions being made by city and town officials and by local voters often prevent construction of the new housing we need.  The more people who understand the drivers of our housing problem, the more people who will advocate for new solutions and contribute to constructive local conversations.

Policy Archive

To foster a deeper understanding of housing and its relationship to economic growth, we maintain a library of resources which including our own reports, recent news releases and related studies and articles on housing and growth from around the U.S.

Baker-Polito Administration announces new housing choice initiative

BOSTON, MA – December 11, 2017 –The Baker-Polito Administration announced a comprehensive new initiative to increase housing production across the Commonwealth. The Administration’s Housing Choice Initiative creates a new system of incentives and rewards for municipalities that deliver sustainable housing growth. The initiative also proposes legislative changes, through An Act to Promote Housing Choices, to deliver smart, effective zoning at the local level.

Why is Housing So Expensive - get involved

Here is Jesse Kanson-Benanav's presentation on how to get involved in local decisions that impact housing and affordable housing production through his experiences with A Better Cambridge and the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement in the Greater Boston area. Delivered to an audience of young professionals at an informational training "Why is Housing So Expensive," on Nov. 6, 2017 at District Hall, Boston. See also presentations by MHP's Center for Housing Data, planning expert Judi Barrett on zoning, and CHAPA's Eric Shupin on state priorities.

Center for Housing Data Contacts

Calandra Clark, Co-Director,  Center for Housing Data

Calandra Clark

Co-Director, Center for Housing Data

Calandra (Callie) Clark joined MHP's public affairs staff in 2008 and was promoted to Special Assistant for Policy and Communications. In early 2017 she became Co-Director of MHP's newly created Center for Housing Data.

Callie has extensive experience in policy analysis and web strategy and in crafting presentations for legislators, local public officials and other public audiences. She has a bachelor's degree in international development from Clark University and a master's degree in urban and regional policy from Northeastern University.

| 857-317-8524

Tom Hopper, Co-Director, Center for Housing Data

Tom Hopper

Co-Director, Center for Housing Data

Tom Hopper joined MHP’s portfolio management team in 2006 and was promoted to Senior Operations & Analytics Manager. In early 2017 he became Co-Director of MHP’s newly created Center for Housing Data.

Tom led the development of an information management system to upload, track and analyze data on projects in MHP’s multifamily loan portfolio. He has also developed metrics, data tools and analytical reports that provide insight into project financial performance, credit quality, and risk management. Tom has a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in city planning from Boston University.

| 857-317-8561

Contributors: Susan Connelly, Phil Crean, Anne Lewis, Ruston Lodi, Clark Ziegler

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