In announcing that he will direct $60 million toward the construction of some 893 new subsidized rental apartments, Gov. Mitt Romney has, surprisingly, started to travel the same disappointing road taken by his recent predecessors in addressing the problem of high housing prices in Massachusetts. His decision is especially troubling in light of progress toward a common-sense approach to solving this crisis which had been made by the governor's own Commonwealth Housing Task Force in its November report.
Simply put, Massachusetts, especially in a time of fiscal distress, cannot subsidize its way out of the problem of high housing prices. Indeed, if subsidizing housing could solve our housing crisis, we would have solved it long ago. Massachusetts has more subsidized housing per capita than all but three other states, and all but two other industrialized states (New York and Rhode Island).
The Commonwealth Housing Task Force had made a start, though only a start, in pointing toward the real solution to our housing problems: construction, construction and construction. It understood that housing built for anyone, at any income level, will mean that more housing will be available for everyone at all income levels. The impediment to construction in the state is not a physical one; we have no shortage of developable land. The impediment to construction is a political one - "local reluctance" (as task force chairman Barry Bluestone has put it) "to provide suitably zoned land for housing." Solving this political problem means convincing local officials that it's in the interest of their towns, and their voters, to allow more housing to be built.
For more than 30 years, Massachusetts has sought to deal with zoning barriers through a combination of subsidy and coercion. We have both built thousands of subsidized apartments and used the controversial anti-snob zoning law - the well-known Chapter 40B - to force local officials to permit higher density development, including units set aside for the poor, or risk a court order forcing them to do so. We must abandon the coercion of Chapter 40B, if we are to set in motion the forces necessary for large scale new housing construction we need.
Here's why. Proposals for low-income housing in higher-income jurisdictions are a recipe for protracted controversy and a guaranteed way to convince local officials to keep the barriers to construction high. That's because American neighborhoods can be said to be organized as a social ladder, one with many small steps. Indeed, census data has historically shown that Americans are geographically grouped on the basis of income and education. Not only are we comfortable with those of similar attainments but we believe that the very process of earning one's way to a higher-income neighborhood is the evidence that a household deserves to be there and will fit in.
Low-income housing advocates - those who see housing as a right and believe subsidized housing should be widely dispersed - may not like these realities. But they are powerful political determinants and help explain the zoning laws which have limited growth.
For municipalities to permit less restrictive zoning, local elected officials must be convinced that new housing is not a threat. The Housing Task Force took a giant step toward doing so with its proposal, not yet enacted, to provide extra state aid for municipalities which relax zoning. Rather than treading the failed road of subsidizing housing specifically for the poor, Romney would do well both to embrace the task force proposal and, at the same time, signal his willingness to use such "impact aid" not as a supplement for the anti-snob zoning law, but as an outright replacement for it. As long as 40B is on the books, local officials will see the heavy hand of social engineering in housing proposals and be reluctant to relax zoning to the extent really necessary to bring housing prices down.
Local officials across the state know that it's often difficult or impossible for the children of local residents to buy a house in town; that police, firefighters and teachers can't afford to live in many of the towns they serve. Higher-density zoning can help address these problems. Subsidized housing and Chapter 40B will lead only to the same controversies and high prices we've had for decades.