Massachusetts has a housing problem: There’s not enough to meet demand, and the scarcity is pushing prices into the stratosphere, hurting residents and businesses. It also has a political problem — one that helped cause, and now helps exacerbate, the housing crisis. Namely, entrenched not-in-my-backyard sentiment at the grass-roots level, often gussied up as some sort of principled environmental or anti-developer stance. Due to the way zoning laws in Massachusetts work, local officials have significant sway over development, and it often takes only a minority of them to gum up the housing development the state needs.
On Tuesday, voters across Greater Boston go to the polls in local elections. As usual, the election campaigns have covered a whole gamut of local issues, many of them particular to Boston or Somerville, Newton or Cambridge. One of the most heartening region-wide developments, though, is the emergence of unapologetically pro-housing voices. It takes significant bravery to stick up for the greater good in the face of NIMBYism, and candidates who do deserve to be rewarded on Tuesday.
In Boston, the Globe has endorsed City Council candidate Ricardo Arroyo in the district that includes Hyde Park and parts of Roslindale and Mattapan. At some political risk, he supported a school proposed on Belgrade Avenue, and is open to housing development proposals in Readville. In District 8, which includes Back Bay and Beacon Hill, the Globe endorsed Kenzie Bok, who teaches a seminar in housing policy at Harvard and is exceptionally well prepared to handle the difficult trade-offs involved in building adequate housing. (For a list of the Globe’s other endorsements, click here.)
In Newton, a wealthy and ostensibly liberal enclave with dizzying housing costs and a scandalously small amount of affordable housing, a grass-roots group called Engine 6 has organized to support candidates that back housing development. Similar groups exist in Cambridge (A Better Cambridge) and Somerville (Somerville YIMBY).
In other elections, here are some questions to ask local candidates: Do they support the governor’s Housing Choice bill, which would reduce the ability of NIMBYs to allow more housing? Do they support allowing greater density around train stations and bus routes, which can promote more environmentally sustainable housing?
For local politicians, the easy way out is often to oppose just about anything — and hope some other community picks up the slack. But the most tragic consequence of the resulting housing shortage is that it worsens the very problems that antidevelopment forces often contend that they care about. Preventing development in dense urban areas near transit pushes the demand off to auto-centric suburbs, where it does more environmental damage. Displacement of low-income residents happens when insufficient supply creates gentrification pressures on existing neighborhoods. When you hear critics complain that developers only build new luxury housing, it’s worth remembering that failing to build those new units to keep the market in equilibrium turns all housing into luxury housing. Newton has resisted development, and now its median sale price for single-family homes is above $1 million.
A handful of mayors, in particular Somerville’s Joe Curtatone and Boston’s Marty Walsh, have led the way on housing creation in Greater Boston. (Curtatone is on the ballot Tuesday; Walsh’s term is up in 2021.) But they can’t do it alone, and voters who care about the economy, the environment, and racial equality ought to consider where candidates stand on housing when they cast their votes on Tuesday.