Innovation! Is there a more overused buzzword in Massachusetts than “innovation?” We’re innovators from way back. Home to the nation’s first public park, first public school, first public library, first college, and first subway system, so many areas of American progress have their roots in our Commonwealth. Today, the innovation continues with local surges in industries like life sciences, clean energy, and advanced manufacturing. And yet, there’s one key area where we are stuck in the past: housing. As important as housing is to our collective economic future, we are failing to innovate. Our policies and practices are antiquated, and it’s holding Massachusetts back.
Massachusetts’ lack of workforce housing can make the state feel like a really nice car with a flat tire, eroding the mileage of our economy, and hampering our ability to retain the best and the brightest talent coming out of our many world-class colleges and universities. Sparse housing has a cascading effect, detering entrepreneurs from launching their own ventures here or from helping to fuel the growth of existing local companies. And it presents deep concerns for the countless young people who may have been game to build their careers here, but have sticker shock after checking out apartments.. Moreover, businesses themselves are sounding the alarm about the consequences of housing costs on expansion and relocation efforts in Massachusetts.
The challenge of finding housing on a budget is nearly universal. Whether you’re renting or buying, in the city or out in the suburbs, prices are steep for pretty much everyone. While some struggle more than others, workers in virtually all industries, income levels, and educational backgrounds, workers are stretched thin, and a limited supply of available housing isn’t helping the situation. Since 2010, the gap in housing production versus projected housing demand has been 43,000 units, according to data from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. As Massachusetts prepares for the creation of thousands of new jobs from growing industries like biopharma and clean energy, and MAPC has projected that all of Eastern Massachusetts will need 435,000 units of new housing by 2040 to meet demand. Meanwhile, an average middle income household, making $80,000 year, can only afford the bottom 23 percent of homes for sale in the Boston market. At a time when the same $80,000 income is only enough to afford 51 percent of the rental market.
As dark as the housing outlook may be, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. In December 2017, fourteen municipal leaders joined to form the Metro Mayors Coalition to address the housing shortage by setting a production goal. Shortly after, Governor Baker announced a plan to reduce local voting requirements for zoning changes, a step to support a housing goal of 135,000 new units by 2025. He also signed the largest housing bond bill ever, directing $1.8 billion to support affordable housing investments, preservation and production. In Boston, Mayor Walsh called for a thirty percent increase to production targets, which would create a total of 69,000 new housing units by 2030. These are certainly steps in the right direction, but fall short of adequately addressing our worsening housing crisis.
As we enter theNew Year, building on the incremental progress of 2018, including pushing the housing choice initiative over the line, is critical. But let’s not be afraid to be bold, and expand strategies that foster production and preservation of housing units that the workforce can actually afford, including more comprehensive zoning reform with requirements for multi-family housing, accessory dwelling units, and inclusionary zoning practices.
Innovation can’t just be reserved for labs in Cambridge or startups in the Seaport. It must apply to our approach to housing, too. The future of the Massachusetts economy depends on it.
Meagan Greene is the Senior Director of Policy and Operations at the Alliance for Business Leadership.