5QW: Housing Production and Affordability

November 8, 2019

- By Alicia Sasser

This issue’s “Five Questions With” features Alicia Sasser Modestino, Ph.D. Associate Professor, School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs; Department of Economics.

Q: What does Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center study and what is your speciality?

A. As a “think and do” tank, the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy is equally committed to producing state-of-the-art applied research and implementing effective policies and practices based on that research.  We conduct interdisciplinary research, in collaboration with civic leaders and scholars both within and beyond Northeastern University, to identify and implement real solutions to the critical challenges facing urban areas throughout Greater Boston, the Commonwealth, and the nation.

Most of my work focuses on housing and workforce development – two issues which often go hand-in-hand with one another. For example, I recently led a team to produce the Boston Foundation’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card – an annual update on housing affordability and production, including an analysis of zoning regulations and the role that they play in impeding the supply of both affordable and workforce housing.

Q: You recently looked at the relationship between housing production and racial segregation, what was something you learned?

A. Despite its largely white, European origins, both domestic and international migration have changed the racial and ethnic composition of Greater Boston over the past several  generations. Nine municipalities in Greater Boston are now majority-minority, with more than 50% of their population identifying as non-white in 2017 (Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, Lynn, Lowell, Malden, and Randolph). Although the region has diversified over time, people of color are still concentrated in a few areas such that the Boston metro region is consistently among the most segregated of the nation’s 50 largest metro areas. Moreover, economic disparity alone does not explain this pattern of racial segregation. For example, we found that black and Latino Massachusetts residents were far more likely to live in high poverty areas than whites with the same incomes.

In fact, residential segregation arises from a combination of a complex set of factors that includes both voluntary choices about where to live as well as constraints on those choices that reflect limitations on the number and type of units that are built, lack of information about housing options, or even outright discrimination in both renting and lending practices.

We find that communities experiencing greater reductions in segregation between 2000 and 2017 were those that permitted more multifamily housing units. So, if we are serious about reducing residential segregation, it’s not enough to just build more housing, we need to build the right mix of different types of housing that is accessible to individuals and families regardless of the socio-economic status or demographic characteristics.

Q: What did you learn during your time as a board member of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership?

A. I have been privileged to serve on the Mass Housing Partnership Board since 2015 and have been nothing but impressed with how the staff fulfill their mission of increasing the supply of affordable housing in Massachusetts. Over the past 5 years I have learned more about the breadth of approaches to affordable housing undertaken by MHP and its state partners that go far beyond simply funding new projects or preserving existing units. For example, MHP also provides technical assistance to cities and towns to develop affordable housing projects, conducts research into some of the common barriers to production, develops innovative financing models, and offers the ONE Mortgage program as a low-cost option for first-time homebuyers.

Q: What can the Commonwealth do to create more “affordable housing” and more housing that is affordable?

A. A logical first step to address this supply crisis would be enactment of Governor Baker’s Housing Choices legislation. While not a panacea, the bill has broad support from planners, local officials, business leaders, and the development community and would bring Massachusetts in line with 41 other states by moving from a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority vote to adopt zoning changes related to housing production, housing affordability and smart growth. The Housing Choices bill is an important first step that would empower local housing advocates and strike a more reasonable balance between local land use regulation and the housing needs of Greater Boston and the Commonwealth as a whole.

Second, recognizing the funding constraints that exist, preserving existing affordability is essential. Our current subsidized housing is at risk due to market rate conversion or lack of investment and preserving an existing affordable unit is far more cost effective than building a new one. Making greater use of Chapter 40 T, which provides for the right of refusal for state designees to acquire and preserve affordable properties, is essential to prevent an even larger shortfall in the number of available units that are affordable to low-income and extremely low-income households.

Third, we should expand incentive-based inclusionary zoning which has been shown to be effective in creating new affordable units without public subsidies. In a strong housing market like Boston and Cambridge currently, inclusionary zoning has been effective in creating thousands of affordable housing units and alleviating the concern that development of market-rate housing provides little direct benefit to low- and moderate-income residents in surrounding neighborhoods. For cities and towns in the surrounding suburbs, the challenge is to establish inclusionary zoning requirements and attendant development incentives such as density bonuses that allow sufficient density to make housing development economically feasible; otherwise inclusionary zoning has the potential to worsen our housing situation by discouraging new development.

Finally, our research from the Greater Boston Housing Report Card indicates that requiring communities to adopt multifamily zoning in areas suitable for higher-density housing would help improve affordability while also reducing racial segregation.  Allowing multifamily housing by right in all single-family zones, as was recently adopted in Minneapolis, is another way that cities and towns can boost production to provide the right mix of housing types.

Q: In terms of housing, what are you looking to study next?

A. My next focus will be to explore the issue of transit-oriented development.  Transportation and housing are currently two of Greater Boston region’s most pressing issues. Building more and diverse housing near public transportation can boost access to transit, improve equity in terms of mobility, and provide greater environmental sustainability.

Yet, although multifamily development is increasingly concentrated in cities and towns on the MBTA subway system, this is not the case in suburban communities served by commuter rail.  The good news is that nearly 60% of Greater Boston communities are near either the T or the commuter rail and recent development has shifted toward transit-accessible communities, which is aligned with state and regional policy goals. Yet on a per capita basis we are over-producing housing in cities and towns with rapid transit access (which is a good thing) but under-producing housing in cities and towns served by commuter rail (which is a concern). Moreover, the housing in those commuter rail towns is disproportionately single family with less than half of the units developed in towns served by the commuter rail were multifamily.