By John Kraft
Despite recent waves of housing development across the state, rents are still rising in the Boston metropolitan area and residents are struggling to find affordable housing.
If you live in the Greater Boston area, chances are you have witnessed new apartment buildings springing up all around, seemingly overnight.
At the same time, the phrase housing crisis is echoed everyday as one of the most important issues facing the state. However, if you have looked recently for a new apartment, you’ll have found unaffordable prices and an extremely short supply of subsidized low-income housing.
Many cities surrounding Boston have been hosts to most of the development seen in the last 10 years. Labeled “gateway cities,” places like Salem, Chelsea and Somerville are part of a state initiative jump-started by think-tank, MassINC, to build upon the economic potential of these hubs, and connect them to Boston.
Housing plays a major role in this initiative, with one goal being to remedy the housing crisis using carefully planned policy and provide more housing for new working populations that at the same time is affordable.
The problem is that so far, with more and more people moving to these cities, affordable housing has not seen a similar increase. And renters across the area are feeling the effects.
“The options come and go so fast it’s hard to keep up with,” said Brittany Spengler, a Somerville renter looking for housing.
One Boston resident, Krishna Hemanth, said that despite further travel distances, cities like Salem are just as expensive as closer options.
“It takes over an hour,” Hemanth said, referring to his daily commute to Salem.
John Labella, founder of HousingWorks Inc., a Boston-based social justice waitlist management company, believes that one of the biggest issues is that policy is driven by a skewed definition of affordable housing.
“It’s a false definition of affordability; tied to geography, and not to income,” said Labella.
He explained that some municipalities included in Boston’s area median income (AMI) are far richer than the majority.
“When HUD created these regions of the country, the Boston region, which goes up into New Hampshire and down to South Shore also includes Lincoln and Littleton,” he said, pointing out some of the state’s richest cities.
AMI is used in housing as a base measure for what price to set low-income housing, with 80% AMI being the highest range for “affordable housing,” and 30% as the lowest range; also labeled “extremely low-income.”
“So I think in Boston, presently, the average income for a family of four is considered $105,000, because Lincoln and Concord and places like that are included,” Labella said. “But the reality is, the median wage in Boston is $34,000 for white people, and it’s something like $7,000 or $12,000 for non-whites.”
And those “real” median incomes that Labella points out hover right in the 30% AMI range set for Boston’s affordable housing.
“So using that approach, it forces gentrification and brings in young professional white adults with small families or no families, and drives out people who have lived here for decades,” says Labella.
Additionally, most new housing developments also have only 10% of the unit makeup set at affordable rates, which is the minimum requirement for new housing in most cities.
Despite this, development continues, in not only housing, but in business as well. And the relationship between the two is an important balancing act.
“The supply of housing also affects the ability to have a workforce to support economic growth,” explained Karl Seidman, an economic development consultant and professor of urban planning at MIT. “And that’s a big issue. Certainly in in the Boston region, you know, We have been under supplying housing for quite some time”
And while continued development is providing an increase in housing, the supply of affordable housing is still low; a fact that more market-rate housing can’t solve.
“In most places, certainly in the Boston region, the rents are not affordable. Market rents are not affordable to those households,” said Seidman. “You need to subsidize the development. You know, the market itself typically will not do that.”
One big factor that plays in the development of affordable housing units is tax credits, which are used to finance affordable development and incentivize private companies to do so. But since the pandemic, those credit units have taken a hit.
“Because there’s people who make more than that, and people who make way less than that, it’s very hard to find people in that narrow band anymore,” he said.
Labella explained that because of the disappearance of people in the 60% AMI range during the pandemic, it has been harder to fill affordable units in that range, and will start to affect tax credits towards affordable housing.
“All the people who were supposedly able to swing maybe up to 60% AMI, have disappeared and all the 60 percents have moved down into 30% and 50%,” said Labella.