Online Exclusives

How to Fix the Housing Crisis

The Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy hosted a webinar September 23 centered around the issue of housing availability and affordability in the greater Boston area and whether or not rent control can be used as a tool to help deal with the crisis.

Part of the Greater Boston Debate Series, the event, “Is Rent Control a Good Way to Protect and Stabilize Renters?”, was held in partnership with the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and co-sponsored by Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.

The goal of the series is to enrich public policy discussions and negotiations in Boston and beyond by engaging leaders in dynamic discussions.

The leaders involved in Thursday’s discussion were Lance Freeman, professor in the Urban Planning program at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) and a 2019 Rappaport Center Senior Fellow in Residence; and Jenny Schuetz (above right), senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Tiziana Dearing, host of Radio Boston on WBUR and a former Boston College professor, served as moderator.

While this event was designed as a debate, Freeman and Schuetz interestingly agreed on most of each other’s points despite approaching the issues from different angles. One recurring theme that stood out from the beginning was that Boston needs to take some action to protect and stabilize renters, especially those who fall into the low income category.

Schuetz explained that there are three different trends going on in cities like Boston that are at the foundation of the housing crisis. “One of them is that some of the hottest housing and labor markets in the country—Boston, New York, and most of the West coast—have been growing in jobs and income but haven’t been building enough housing to keep up with demand. We have this shortage of housing that has been accumulating for decades,” she said.

The second problem is that lower incomes haven’t kept up with the cost of providing market rate housing, said Schuetz. “There is this gap between income and housing costs at the bottom end of the scale that is not being met and that gap has been widening over time.”

The third piece, Schuetz explained, is that places like Boston have a lot of older housing with high maintenance needs. Much of the housing is not energy efficient, and it’s not set up to deal with climate change problems, including being located in the wrong places.

Schuetz argued that rent control does not address any of these underlying problems because it doesn’t increase the number of units that are available, it doesn’t directly target low income households who need more cash to pay the rent, and it doesn’t deal with the issues of an aging housing stock. “If we want to think about rent control as one of the possible tools, we also want to think about other tools that can more effectively target those direct problems,” she said.

What makes the solution so complicated is that there is not enough funding from the federal government, and political pressure from local residents who don’t want to see affordable housing projects going up in their neighborhoods halts any discussion about improving supply. This has led to the pressure being placed on the private sector, which is why local governments are implementing rent control. The problem with that, said Schuetz, is that it can create distortions in the market depending on how the program is designed.

Freeman agreed with Schuetz’s points about the need for additional tools on top of rent control, and that rent control programs have to be implemented in a way that avoids market distortions. “The details are very important, mostly to provide landlords with more latitude so that we can try to limit some of the distortions associated with rent control,” said Freeman.

Schuetz added, “This is really a problem where some people earn too little money to afford the cost of housing, and the best way to deal with that is by plugging the gap with cash, preferably from the federal government, but the state governments could also do more.”

When asked to provide their opinions on the single most effective way to solve these problems, both Freeman and Schuetz agreed that it will take a two-pronged strategy. On one end the federal government needs to create more funding for low income households, and on the other end communities need to produce more housing, especially multi-family rental housing.

“We need to encourage, incentivize, and make it easier to build more housing, and we also need to augment the demand side,” said Freeman. “We need to make sure people can earn a livable wage as best as we can.”

Schuetz added, “If we were to solve the housing shortage in Massachusetts, it’s not something the city of Boston can do by itself, or that the city of Cambridge can do by itself, and in fact, much of the supply problem is really driven by the affluent suburbs outside of Boston and Cambridge.” She said these places—western suburbs—have to be a part of the solution and make it easier to build moderately priced housing. “To fix the supply problem is going to involve knocking some heads together across these jurisdictions,” Schuetz said.

Freeman agreed, saying, “Because of our system of local and state governments, a lot of the decision making is very fragmented. We don’t have a metropolitan housing organization that would rationally plan housing for entire metropolitan areas such as Boston or New York City.”

The challenges outlined by Schuetz and Freeman explain why local governments have turned to rent control as a form of immediate relief, but both panelists reiterated the need for a long-term solution.

Schuetz said this could include emergency rent relief that’s tied to a measure of the economy along with building an infrastructure that allows relief to reach people in a more immediate fashion. “We should start building that now so that when the next crisis hits, we are able to step up faster than we did this time,” she concluded.

The Rappaport Center will be holding a virtual follow-up program “Zoning and Equity,” also co-sponsored by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, on October 21from 12-1:30 p.m. To receive more information, please email Rappaport@bc.edu.

View the debate on YouTube.

Photograph, left to right, Lance Freeman, Tiziana Dearing, and Jenny Schuetz

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