Abundant Housing MA Panel Discussion - Oct 27th, 2022

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This event was held at Suffolk Law in Boston. The panelists were

  • Prof. Vicki Been (NYU School of Law)
  • Prof. Anika Singh Lemar (Yale Law School)
  • Prof. Maxwell Palmer (Boston University)
  • Dr. Jenny Schuetz (Brooking Institute)

Abundant Housing MA Board Chair Molly Goodman moderated.

During the introductions, I learned that a team of 14 Suffolk Law students is working on developing a statewide Massachusetts Zoning Atlas. That will be a useful thing to have.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman notes that Massachusetts is in the middle of a severe housing shortage. Fifty years after the passage of US fair housing laws, much of Massachusetts is still segregated by class and race.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz focuses on housing policy at a national level. Nationally, we are short three or four million homes. Production-wise this amounts to being around a decade in the hole. In some areas, we're more like 30--40 years behind in housing production. This shortage is largely due to policies enacted at the local level, and local governments outsourcing their authority to homeowners that don't want more housing.

In the last three to four years, affordability has gone from being a coastal problem to being a much wider one. People are priced out of the areas where they live, then move to less-expensive areas, which raises prices there. The cost of under-building has the biggest effect on low- to moderate-income households. There's a huge climate impact to not building more housing in Boston, and to building housing in the wrong place. There's also a lot of pro-housing advocacy happening at the state level, which is relatively new.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says the key problems are solving housing and land use issues. Affordability has been a problem in New York City for decades. New York set a goal to finance the rehabilitation and preservation, or construction of, 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. The city met that goal.

Ms. Been sees four main issues. First, we need more land available to build housing. That can be done by rezoning for higher density, and using land owned by governments and religious institutions. Second, we have to reduce the cost of building, by reducing risk, and the number of veto points in the permitting process. Third, we have to ensure affordability, using tools like inclusionary zoning. Fourth, we have to address fears of displacement. This can be done by tackling the perception that more housing causes displacement, and enacting policies to prevent it.

(Anika Singh Lamar) Ms. Lamar does community development work with groups of university students. They've helped clients through the process of proposing upzoning. They work with day care providers in municipalities that have tried to ban home child care. They also work with community-based housing developers.

Ms. Lamar says she was asked to talk about some of the lawsuits that she and her students were involved in. They filed a case claiming that Woodbury, CT's zoning violated the state zoning act, because it doesn't promote housing choice or economic diversity. They have another case against Woodbury, claiming that the town's zoning violates the CT constitution's prohibition on discrimination. She says that Woodbury has also violated federal fair housing laws by discriminating against multi-family housing.

(Max Palmer) Mr. Palmer's background is in political science, and he summarizes a few findings from his research. First, the people who participate in local hearings about housing tend not to be representative of the broader community -- they tend to be older, whiter, homeowners, and very much in opposition to new housing. Renters, people of color, and younger adults support much higher levels of housing density. What you hear really depends on who you ask.

Second, exclusionary restrictions are discriminatory. For example, a community might build affordable housing with a restriction that only seniors can live there. Or there might be restrictions that give precedence to existing residents. This often means the housing is only available to white people who already live in the community.

Finally, there's a real fragmentation in information. You might think it would be easy to answer the question "How many subsidized housing units are there in greater Boston?", but it's not. There's no one place that provides a complete detail of all the affordable housing in MA. We need better data in order to address this crisis.

The panel moves into facilitated Q&A. (I think some of the questions were submitted by attendees ahead of the event.)

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks about luxury housing that's being built. She asks if all of these units are being filled.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says this is a hard question to answer, since everyone defines "luxury housing" differently -- often as something they don't want or can't afford. Market rate housing has become luxury housing, because there's not enough of it. Some people do buy second or third homes in super-cities that attract wealthy people. But those homes aren't unoccupied; the owner just doesn't live there full time. She says that NYC's rent stability laws sometimes make it hard for owners to renovate and maintain their properties. Eventually those units deteriorate to the point where they can't be rented.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks if we need more market rate housing.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says yes, we need more. She tends to think of "luxury" as tied to land and location. We have luxury land, and the question is more about how many homes we're going to build on it. The best way to build more affordable housing is to build up. New construction is always more expensive than used. We can't build as many homes as the market would like, so what gets built is usually expensive.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks if there's a unique right of enforcement in Connecticut's zoning enabling act.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says the zoning act doesn't provide a unique right of enforcement, but the anti-discrimination clause in Connecticut's constitution is unique.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks if Massachusetts should push for a housing elements plan, similar to what California has.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says that state governments need to push local governments; you'll never achieve regional goals if you have to wait for each muni to come on board. State goals provide a clear picture, but only a handful of states have done this. Requiring more multi-family housing around transit is great, because that's where we need it.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says it's really important to count, measure, and set goals. Measuring lets communities see what each other are doing.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says the goal should be in the number of housing units produced, and not (say) the amount of money spent.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman's next question is about the MBTA community requirements portion of Massachusetts's Housing Choice law, which requires communities to allow multi-family housing by right near transit. She asks if the panelists have any suggestions for advocates that support the MBTA requirements.

(Maxwell Palmer) Mr. Palmer notes that some towns have been fighting the new requirements. He advises advocates not to let their towns delay implementation of the requirements. Push to get them done sooner, and don't let your community use delay tactics.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says a lot of these policies depend on how the state comes up with numbers, and how prescriptive the requirements are. She thinks it's better for the state to provide target numbers, while giving municipalities some flexibility in meeting those targets. That leaves them with local control around how the target is met.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks if there's a role for law professors to educate local officials.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says she's lobbied for mandatory training for planning and zoning commissioners. Educate them about bias. She thinks that training should be mandatory and periodic; not just a one-time thing. Their decisions are complicated, and they have ramifications.

(Maxwell Palmer) Mr. Palmer suggests that advocates get themselves on these boards. Some cities and towns struggle to find people who are willing to do the work.

(Molly Goodman) Ms. Goodman asks whether we should continue to have public participation in these processes.

(Maxwell Palmer) Mr. Palmer thinks that public participation is important. No participation has a downside, and we saw that during urban renewal efforts of the last century. Providing the public with too many veto points also has a downside. Our permitting processes favor abutters, and not the people who might live in new housing; they're an unknown group that we can't reach out to. Mr. Palmer thinks there should be a public process when zoning laws are created, but most things should be by right. He'd phase out public participation in project review.

Now, we move on to taking questions from the audience.

(Question) One attendee has a question about advocacy. Cambridge has a history of making progressive changes, which stick around for a few years, only to be rolled back by a later administration. Once you make a positive change, how do you get it to stick?

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says the work is constant. She suggests developing allies, even where you might not anticipate having them. Do the groundwork so that there are people willing to advocate when the time comes.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says that advocacy is critical to helping government do the right thing, and to counter all of the negativity around new housing. Diversity of voices plays a vital role.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says that advocacy is important for giving government the motivation to do things. It helps show support for policies.

(Question) The attendees thinks that what the panelists have said about organization and advocacy is true. He asks if there are too many local democratic institutions. He often thinks that regional government bodies might do better, but maybe not. He asks what the panelists think about local democracies.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz agrees with the idea of moving public participation to policy discussions, rather that permitting. She thinks some decision making should be up to the state level. Having numbers to back up public opinion is also helpful.

(Maxwell Palmer) Mr. Palmer gives LA and NYC as examples where there's one government, but there are still other forms of fragmentation. With the housing market, it used to be the case that people could vote with their feet; if they didn't like things in one community, they could just move to the next. These days, housing is expensive everywhere, and voting with your feet isn't a practical option.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says the question of what level of government should do what is a very nuanced issue. Many state officials think like city councilors. They can be very parochial, thinking of their own voters and not much else.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says that Connecticut has assembly members who are also mayors. Regulatory structures need enforcement to be effective. Ms. Lemar thinks there are opportunities for regionalization around things like transit, sewers, and infrastructure. She says "yes" to regionalism, but isn't quite sure what form it should take.

(Question) The attendee says he often hears objections about changes to neighborhood character, and about falling home values. He asks if the panelists have suggestions for responding to objections over dropping home values.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says that concerns about dropping home values are voice a lot. Value depends on class. For example, if a person owns a $2M dollar home in Wellesley, a 10% drop in their home value isn't the end of the world. They'll be left with a $1.8M house, and they'll be fine. The discussion is very nuanced, though, because people don't want their neighborhoods to change across the spectrum. You own your own home, but you don't own your neighbors. Housing has risks, just like any other financial asset.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says that if you don't let buildings change, other things will. Getting people to talk about what they really like can be helpful.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says that the building of wealth is what causes people to become risk-averse, and you have to confront that. Ms. Been says this is not limited to homeowners. People living in affordable housing can take NIMBY positions too.

(Maxwell Palmer) Mr. Palmer says that home ownership changes peoples political behavior. Homeowner can be anti-renter, and sometimes renters are reluctant to vote because they don't own homes.

(Question) An attendees asks how to change the mindset of NIMBYism. Especially the forms of NIMBYism that oppose communities of color.

(Jenny Schuetz) Ms. Schuetz says that not all homeowners are NIMBYs. A lot of people haven't thought about housing as a policy issue, and they can be talked to and won over.

(Vicki Been) Ms. Been says that developers are thinking more about how to build community. Policy makers need to be aware of how to influence that. NIMBYism isn't just about homeowners; it's about where people's financial stakes are. Tenants living in rent-restricted housing can be as much NIMBY as homeowners.

(Anika Singh Lemar) Ms. Lemar says that the history of housing policy can be useful. For example, a community might have built a lot of homes on quarter-acre lots, but changed to a two-acre minimum years later. When did that change happen and why, and what else was going on at the time? Some people are really turned off by this history, but some find it very interesting. Dig in to when down-zoning happened and why.