Abundant Housing MA — Statement on Local Option Housing Bills

Originally published Jan. 17, 2020 on Medium.

Abundant Housing Massachusetts (AHMA) is a new, statewide pro-housing organization launching in 2020. Our complete organizational mission is included below the following statement.

The following statement was prepared by (AHMA) founding steering committee member Jarred Johnson, and cosigned by members Beyazmin Jiminez, Molly Goodman, Burhan Azeem, Jacob Oppenheim, and Jesse Kanson-Benanav.

I’m Jarred Johnson with Abundant Housing Massachusetts, a new group organizing Pro-Housing residents across Greater Boston and the state who are dedicated to zoning reform and making sure cities, towns, and neighborhoods across Mass are doing their part to solve the housing crisis. One of the chief causes of this housing crisis is the restrictive zoning across the state that concentrates the majority of development in only a handful of places. These exclusionary policies exemplify the unwillingness of some cities and towns to build the multi-family and affordable housing the state needs. We support any legislation that makes it easier for municipal governments to upzone single-family neighborhoods, especially around transit. We also support legislation that would force those municipalities that artificially suppress their housing supply through exclusionary single-family zoning to build the transit-oriented developments that the state so desperately needs.

We understand though, that zoning changes do not happen in a vacuum and that the structural changes around zoning will take some time for the benefits to be felt by low-income residents. That is why bills like H3924 & H1316, as well as the set of bills related to both the real estate transfer fee, right to purchase and right of first refusal, are crucial. As we build the housing we need around the region, we need to have the tools necessary to stop unfair rent hikes, building clearouts and allow tenants and non-profit to preserve naturally occurring affordable housing. We need to have the tools to limit rent increases, generate revenue for affordable housing, and give tenants more rights. All the while, we must build towards a future where renters have the best protection of all — numerous affordable choices of where to live, leaving no one at the mercy of their landlord.

I’d also like to add “Right to counsel” as one of the best ways to help protect current tenants from unfair evictions and illegal practices.

As valuable as the local option bills are, we hope the legislature can enact statewide or regionwide tenant protections and rent regulation to give renters uniformity and predictability as they move around the region. We want to and to ensure that all municipalities are doing their part to supply housing and protect tenants.

I hope that the legislature is able to embrace bold actions like the state of Oregon which abolished single-family zoning, allowing fourplexes in every town and city AND capped rent increases. Or like California, which capped rent increases AND and is close to requiring transit-connected and job-rich cities across the state to build much more multi-family housing, while providing protection for low-income neighborhoods.

Notes from YIMBYtown 2018

We’re often asked “why did you form AHMA?” and that leads us to tell the tale of our part in the planning of YIMBYtown 2018, held in Boston Sept. 20–23 at Roxbury Community College. We were able to hold the conference thanks in part to the generosity of Open Philanthropy & Harborlight Community Partners, our fiscal sponsor.

The conference was planned by a coalition of pro-housing groups, as well as staff members of various CDCs, and it became clear to us that a statewide advocacy group was needed, both to support our all-volunteer grassroots groups, and to lobby for state-level policy change.

Here’s some others sharing their experiences at, and of, the conference:

We Need Bold Leadership to Face Our Housing Crisis

Boston’s Next City Council Can Be a Leader in Massachusetts

Originally published as a special to Banker & Tradesman Nov. 10, 2019

With last week’s election, Boston had the opportunity to elect one of the most diverse councils in the city’s history. At the same time, the reality of the city’s failure to grapple with the housing crisis crept around every corner of every City Council candidate’s platform this election. As pro-housing activists and planners, we worry that the city’s leadership has yet to take into account how much of our city is at stake if we do not make bold changes in housing now.

We need more rental opportunities for students and families. We need homeownership opportunities for new couples living and working in Boston and for single parents trying to stabilize the future of their children. We need the Boston city council to help educate their counterparts in surrounding municipalities on the benefits of multi-family housing and Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Municipalities need a diverse housing stock to meet the needs of all their residents throughout various phases of their lives.

New housing units will provide homes for newcomers and long-time residents alike. Many young people cannot afford to live in the cities and towns where they grew up and the opportunities for elderly residents to age in their communities are dwindling. Boston cannot do this work alone but it can certainly lead the charge.

Boston Once Built for Newcomers 

Nearly alone in the Northeast, the city of Boston has managed to permit housing at a decent clip since the beginning of Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration. By allowing more growth than cities such as San Francisco, we have so far been able to avoid a catastrophic rent spiral, but we have yet to bring rents down sustainably.

Our permitting numbers, however, are dwarfed by the scale of housing production in cities that have seen thriving economies and falling rents, such as Seattle and Portland. There, the rate of growth has been twice Boston’s in its best years, year after year. 

A century ago, we built housing for the masses, welcoming immigrants fleeing poverty, famine, and persecution overseas and within the United States. Today, zoning laws constrain our ability to build most of these housing types and welcome newcomers. 

Historically, this is how cities thrived during booms: by building more housing and welcoming newcomers. Triple–deckers sprung up all over Boston in the two decades around the turn of the 20th century, making light of today’s changes. A century ago, we built housing for the masses, welcoming immigrants fleeing poverty, famine, and persecution overseas and within the United States. Today, zoning laws constrain our ability to build most of these housing types and welcome newcomers.

Building for the many and not the few is possible today, provided the city allows it. We have seen a spate of proposals for 100 percent affordable housing on parcels on city-owned land of Dudley Square, enabled by flexibility on height and density requirements, and limiting the amount of costly parking provided.

These projects are unfortunately the exception and not the rule, due to the restrictions we have placed around housing growth in Boston’s wealthiest and highest-in-demand areas. It is no surprise that we build mostly luxury housing, when costly permitting and appeals processes are needed to secure the right to build new housing. It would be a mistake to say these high–end units do no good – every resident in them is one not displacing a tenant in Roxbury. Rather, they are a missed opportunity, demonstrating how much needs to be done to bring rents down. 

What the Council Can Do 

In addition, the city of Boston needs real zoning reform. We can do better at increasing predictability and bringing down construction costs, but we are not in this alone. The surrounding cities and towns that make up the Greater Boston region are not doing their fair share. We desperately need the state legislature to pass Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, which will reduce the requirement for passing municipal zoning changes to a simple majority instead of two-thirds of city council or town meeting. 

The Housing Choice legislation is only the first step. We know that exclusionary, single-family zoning has an ugly, racist history. In the age of Trump, we will be complicit in this legacy if we continue to throw up barriers for those hoping to move into opportunities that provide the freedom that only stable housing can provide. Research shows that restricting multi-family zoning segregates people by race and class.

By preventing the construction of multi-family housing, local governments are exacerbating the housing shortage, driving up prices and keeping away newcomers, and it has reached crisis levels. Families are forced to move farther and farther away from their jobs to find homes that they can afford, which means longer commutes, more traffic and more greenhouse-gas emissions.

The next Boston City Council needs to step up considerably on these issues. The path has been clearly blazed by cities from Minneapolis, where triplexes are now allowed by right on every parcel, to Seattle, where dense apartments are routinely permitted in residential areas, and in the state of Oregon where rent caps and statewide zoning reform were simultaneously introduced just this past year. It is our job to learn from their successes and apply them on the East Coast.

It would be foolish to squander a historical (bio)technology boom by passing on wage increases to landlords and homeowners by blocking growth. The City Council can be a leader in bringing the entire Greater Boston region together to solve our housing crisis collectively. We hope they will not let us down.