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Do Housing Affordability and Supply Challenges Need a Justice Lens?

Originally posted on Boston Univeresity School of Public Health Research News. 

It is not news to anyone that rents are escalating again in many cities, including Boston, and these high costs can make dreams of homeownership out of reach. But in a recent clinic visit at Boston Medical Center, a patient’s mother shared unexpected bright news: she was becoming a homeowner. She had lived in housing run by Boston Housing Authority for the past decade, earning more money and taking homeowner classes. She was able to get assistance with home-buying through the Section 8 program, and now looks forward to moving out of public housing and into a new home that will be a generational home for her and her children.

Last March, we co-hosted a roundtable on housing supply and affordability in Boston with our partners at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy. Stakeholders from across the Greater Boston housing sector joined us to discuss current challenges with lessons learned, which were summarized in this BPC report.

It was a wide-ranging discussion, spanning construction costs and zoning reform to ways to enhance rental assistance and preserve aging housing stock.

But the roundtable lacked ample discussion on the ways that housing policy changes can advance inclusive and equitable housing production and homeownership with more nuanced approaches to wealth building and wider thinking about economic mobility. Innovative programs are already making a difference but need to be scaled. In the current moment, recognizing the structural racism at the root of a yawning wealth gap between BIPOC and white communities, it is time to think and act differently.

It is well-known that there is a stark gap in home ownership between White Bostonians and Black and Latino Bostonians. Recent data showed home ownership among White families at 44 percent, compared to 30 percent and 17 percent among Black and Latino families, respectively. We do not have to stand by and let this be—we can make different choices.

Naturally, there are housing solutions to address these housing inequities. To start, we can think differently about the path to housing stability and homeownership. Some places need more affordable housing, and some places need more affordable homeownership. Put simply, we need different solutions for different places. Siting the majority of income-restricted housing in low-income neighborhoods—predominantly communities of color—without deeply investing in opportunities for home ownership in those same places limits neighborhood residents’ opportunities to build wealth. And—let’s speak plainly—it externally limits Black, Latino, and other people of color’s ability to build wealth.

Conversely, in wealthy suburbs and neighborhoods we need zoning that allows more income-restricted housing, so that renters are able to move in and benefit from the opportunities in those areas. We have extreme rigidity in our societal approach to housing, existing only within two extremes: mortgages for ownership or rental assistance.

But this either/or approach is a false dichotomy.

There are important new models that already contemplate ways to link rent to ownership or building wealth. Two examples include the Renter Wealth Creation Fund through Enterprise Community Partners, and the Boston Housing Authority’s Section 8 to Homeownership Program. The Renter Wealth Creation Fund turns the typical real estate equity equation on its head—renters contribute to landlords building equity in the property, so why shouldn’t they also benefit from that equity creation? In designated properties, long-term renters receive a portion of the value in sales or refinancing and all renters in good standing receive cash back each month to save, pay down debts, or have financial flexibility.

In the Section 8 to Homeownership Program, households with a Section 8 voucher can use the voucher value toward their monthly mortgage payment for up to 15 years, essentially providing a rent-to-own option using the Section 8 voucher.

Lastly, as we think beyond renting and owning to housing creation, one aspect of the cost of housing includes the cost of construction, in turn requiring a sufficient workforce. This is another opportunity to bend the housing supply and affordability challenges towards justice. We need greater investment in the construction pipeline, specifically in trades education for BIPOC communities, starting early, to create high paying jobs and economic ladders to wealth building. Currently, technical-vocational schools in Massachusetts increasingly serve White communities, leaving behind BIPOC and students with special needs who could succeed and earn a living wage in a vocational career. This lack of access, in turn, makes it harder for students who do not plan to go on to higher education to secure a livable wage straight out of high school in a field like construction. In the broadest terms, limiting the pool of skilled workers also limits the labor force for housing construction. We advocate for greater access to technical and vocational education for all communities—more schools, more seats—leading to a greater pool of qualified workers in our state.

A saying often attributed to Albert Einstein states that “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Solutions are at our collective fingertips. We can create new ways to address housing instability at its root and increase access to safe, affordable housing and wealth building while addressing historical harms from structural racism.

Massachusetts can lead and show the way forward for the nation yet again, as it has with healthcare coverage, marriage equality, and more. Creativity, cross-sector thinking, and a deliberate equity focus are the keys to changing the narrative on housing in Massachusetts and beyond.