How much worse does the state’s affordable housing crisis have to get before communities are moved to act?
It is no secret that Massachusetts is suffering from a shortage of housing across the financial spectrum, but the pain is being felt most acutely by those with the fewest resources.
That fact was made evident once again in a report released earlier this week by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, which revealed that the state has twice as many extremely low-income households (274,842) as it has apartments to put them in (128,037).
Boston Fed defines “extremely low-income households” as those earning up to $22,650 for a single person or $29,150 for a family of three. The high cost of housing in the region means these families often have to spend a third — or more — of their monthly income on rent.
“Due to high housing costs, extremely low-income households often have to forgo spending on healthcare, food, childcare or other necessities,” the report said. “A single financial shock — a job loss or a large medical bill— can cause this group to fall behind on rent, leading to eviction or even homelessness.”
The problem could get worse in the coming years as state and federal support for subsidized housing runs out. As many as 9,000 subsidized apartments across the state could be lost over the next six years as subsidies run out and property owners raise rents or convert the units to market-rate condos.
The Fed report suggested several approaches to solving the problem, including offering a mix of new subsidies and tax credits aimed at preserving current units while growing the number of affordable apartments outside the state’s major population centers. The cost of such work could cost as much as $1 billion a year by 2035.
The report’s authors also noted “the state’s increasing need to preserve affordable housing is widely acknowledged and supported.”
That is true — to a point. To be sure, Gov. Charlie Baker and the state Legislature are working on proposals to put more decision-making into the hands of local officials with the hope of spurring housing growth. But that local control means nothing if local city councilors and selectmen don’t have the will to use it. The Salem City Council recently rejected a well-thought-out, common-sense plan to help turn some of the city’s unused church and public properties into much-needed housing. In nearby Wenham, a handful of neighbors have been able to stonewall a project aimed at providing affordable housing for senior citizens.
As the Fed report makes clear, there’s no time for such hemming and hawing. It is long past time for that widely acknowledged support to become wide-ranging action.