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One tool to help create affordable housing — real estate transfer fees

Originally posted on The Boston Globe.

The open market has never had a viable mechanism to resolve the problem of escalating housing prices and rampant real estate speculation.

For too long, affordable homes have been out of reach for people across the Commonwealth. But a tool exists that can help communities solve this persistent problem: a real estate transfer fee.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu is seeking the Legislature’s approval of a home rule petition for a transfer fee of up to 2 percent on real estate sales of $2 million or more in the city. The money would pay for new affordable housing and provide tax cuts for low-income seniors.

Like Boston, Somerville, Concord, Cambridge, Arlington, Brookline, Nantucket, Provincetown, and Chatham have already passed local home rule petitions calling for transfer fees. The Legislature should approve the proposals and also consider legislation giving all communities across the state the option of imposing transfer fees.

The open market has never had a viable mechanism to resolve the problem of escalating housing prices and rampant real estate speculation. The result is that people move farther from where they work in order to afford housing.

In Gateway Cities, soaring rents have led to overcrowding, which has fanned the flames of the coronavirus pandemic and exacerbated other health issues. A Boston Foundation report found that stable housing cut the number of emergency room visits by children and their caregivers by nearly half in the course of a year. Unaffordable housing is driving increasing homelessness — Massachusetts now has 20,000 people without shelter at any given time — an obvious health crisis. A study in Health Affairs shows that families struggling to pay rent or utilities postpone or cancel necessary health care treatments

This is not simply about building more affordable homes or apartment buildings. The local option to impose transfer fees enables a community to pursue its own best means of dealing with housing issues, including purchasing deed restrictions for affordability, buying existing residences from the short-term rental market and converting them into year-round homes, providing support to keep homes livable by fixing polluting septic systems, expanding down-payment programs, and crafting aggressive disincentives for real estate flips.

This solution cannot be delayed if the state is going to maintain functioning, diverse, welcoming, and safe communities and neighborhoods.

It is an economic problem, a fairness problem, a community problem — and a health problem. When communities become commodities, we all suffer.

We have the opportunity to arrest the statewide housing crisis, bolster our economic sustainability, and protect public health. The Legislature must pass the transfer fee and hand municipalities across the state the right tool so we can get to it.

Dan O’Connell, former secretary of Housing and Economic development for Massachusetts, is a member of the steering committee of the Coalition to Create a Martha’s Vineyard Housing Bank. Dr. Megan Sandel is a pediatrician, codirector of the GROW Clinic, and principal investigator of Children’s HealthWatch at Boston Medical Center.