State lawmakers propose sweeping changes to stem MA housing crisis

BOSTON — A Senate committee tasked with helping Massachusetts adapt to the post-pandemic world is proposing sweeping policy changes for first-time homebuyers and renters facing eviction.

The Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency released a 22-page report Tuesday with policy recommendations for pandemic-related issues like the decline of public transportation, remote work and inequality, and a greater need for broadband access in lower-income communities.

But the committee is also proposing an overhaul to the state’s eviction process, additional housing and rental assistance, and a $500 million dollar investment in construction projects for new homes.

“It’s an issue I hear about every single day in my district,” Committee Chair Sen. Adam Hinds said. “Can we have a new approach to evictions? Is there a way that benefits landlords, making sure they get their money but also [help the] tenants who are facing housing insecurity?”

Related: Massachusetts median home price jumps 27% since 2019

The committee wants to invest $400-500 million in construction projects to build more homes, apartments and condominiums. Hinds said the idea is that if there is a higher supply, then there will be more opportunities for the state to create affordable housing. The lawmakers also want to cut red tape and loosen certain zoning laws and regulations that could get in the way of building homes.

“These are initial proposals. They’re kind of starting the conversation. We’re working with the Senate president and the chair of Ways and Means and others to make as many of these a reality,” Hinds said.

Gabriella Cartagena is the digital communications organizer with City Life/Vida Urbana, a Boston housing advocacy group. Cartagena said in 19 months her organization has received more than 4,000 calls from nervous tenants worried about losing their homes.

“We’re hearing all types of stories from people who have more than 10 months of rental debt and don’t know where to go,” Cartagena said. “The majority of calls we receive in our hotline are people who are asking for rental relief.”

>>>MORE: Lagging construction of new homes contributes to rising prices

According to City Life/Vida Urbana, 22,391 Notices to Quit have been filed in Massachusetts courts since the start of the pandemic. A Notice to Quit is the first step in evicting someone from their house or apartment.

“If you build more housing, you increase the supply and you expect the price to go down. But this isn’t happening anywhere in gentrified neighborhoods,” Cartagena said. “This isn’t the case of build more and prices will go down in these particular gentrified neighborhoods. What we need is an increase of truly reflective affordable units.”

Here are the policy recommendations from the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency:

  • Housing construction. Building more dwellings is a key part of any solution to the state’s high housing costs. A large-scale, $400 million-$500 million investment in direct support for existing state programs that support the construction of rental housing and homes for sale would expand the local housing stock — while also giving the state greater sway over the production of affordable and workforce-appropriate housing.
  • Regulatory change. While some cities and towns across the commonwealth have set meaningful targets for new construction, many fundamental impediments remain, including a regulatory system with too many opportunities to stonewall. Following California’s lead to end single-family zoning could open new vistas for building; short of that, offering additional local aid to towns that loosen zoning rules and reduce regulatory hurdles could provide a real inducement.
  • Rental assistance for all who need it. While the state provides rental vouchers to thousands of people — and has expanded this support during the pandemic — the majority of eligible families aren’t able to receive rental support. A funding commitment to open these programs to all eligible residents would vastly improve rental options among low-income families, though it would be expensive and would require careful design to avoid unintended consequences.
  • Additional support for first-time homebuyers. Overcoming the legacy of redlining and other forms of discrimination requires deliberate action. Using ARPA funds to provide $250 million in additional support for existing, successful programs like the Mass Housing Partnership or MassHousing’s down payment assistance program would expand hard-to-secure financing for minority and low-income homebuyers. It could also support new programs, such as a “first in the family” homebuyer initiative to reduce down payments or provide interest rate subsidies for those without a family history of homeownership
  • New approach to eviction. The Covid-era ban on most evictions highlighted major problems with the current eviction system in Massachusetts. To ensure a fairer process, Massachusetts should guarantee tenants a right to counsel, automatically connect them to rental assistance programs like RAFT, redirect cases to mediation, and mandate better data collection from the court system — especially with regard to race and ethnicity, so that we can document disparities and identify appropriate state responses. The cost of these changes would amount to roughly $100 million per year, but it could bring a range of economic benefits tied to greater housing stability. Massachusetts should also strengthen its commitment to homelessness prevention, including low-barrier access to housing and prevention resources and stronger enforcement against housing discrimination.