The Joint Housing Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature recently held a virtual hearing on House Bill H.1378, a proposal to grant cities and towns the right to establish rent control. As a person who lived in a rent control apartment, then owned rent-controlled apartments, and now owns unregulated apartments, I have broad experience of the issue. This series explores the potential, and pitfalls, of rent-control as a mechanism to address our housing supply and affordability crisis.
Better Options to Addressing our Housing Crisis
The knee-jerk reaction to addressing our housing crisis is simple: build more housing. That is certainly part of the solution. But a comprehensive and sustainable approach to ensuring housing for all must also include: create different housing. Different types of housing, different size housing, different arrangements of groups sharing housing.
Over the past seventy-five years, the average size of a home in the United States has more than doubled, while the average family size has shrunk. Most of us occupy more square feet than our parents, and magnitudes more than our grandparents. Space that we must heat and cool and furnish. Space that, despite stricter energy codes, consumes an unsustainable amount of fossil energy. We cannot construct housing for all without structural changes to the way we conceive and deliver housing, because the lion’s share of housing we create is simply gobbled up by the ever more affluent end of our population, while bottom dwellers are denied access.
The atomization of our housing fuels another problem plaguing our nation: the mental health of loneliness. Twenty-five percent of us live alone. A direct result of an affluent society that celebrates autonomy. Yet, humans are social creatures. For all we crave independence, isolation is unhealthy.
I began researching this series, “On Rent Control,” with an open mind as to whether Massachusetts should reenable rent control. However, the more I read, the more I understood that rent control provides housing security for a select few at the expense of others. Its most tantalizing attribute is political: the illusion equity without public cost.
There’s no value in denigrating one approach to providing affordable housing without offering options in its stead. And so, I offer this smattering of ideas that, collectively, could actually alleviate our housing crisis. They fall into two main threads: First, opportunities that require public resolve without large public expenditures. Second, opportunities that require public resolve—and public money.
Increasing Housing Stock and Affordability without Large Public Expense
Some of these ideas have been around awhile; others may be new. Some tread on existing rights of property owners, but no more than rent control does.
1. Zoning Reform. The first, most obvious, and most impactful way to create more housing, and more affordable housing, is zoning reform. Zoning’s noble roots as a means to ensure public health have been coopted to protect property values. We should abolish all single-family zoning. We should enable auxiliary units in existing buildings, or in fresh outbuildings. We should reduce parking requirements to allow greater density.
Zoning reform would actually cost less than instituting rent control. No need to create the bureaucracy of a Rent Control Board; zoning review boards already exist. In addition, rather than simply regulating existing dwellings, looser zoning would actually create new dwellings.
2. Inclusionary Zoning. Maintain, and possibly expand, inclusionary zoning. Since Cambridge is a desirable place to develop, the city currently requires 20% of residential units in new buildings to be ‘inclusionary.’ (i.e. rented to people of moderate income). Although inclusion does not serve low-income people, it is a welcome and integrated form of subsidizing moderate income housing. Can we boost it to 25%? Will the developers still come at that threshold? I think so.
3. Shared Housing. Create more generous forms of shared housing. In a college town like Cambridge, shared housing can have a bad name. Nonetheless, it exists. Current zoning defines four or more people living together as ‘group housing’, with different requirements than a single-family unit. Group housing should be better defined, more easily organized, and given inducements, so that four, five, six, even eight people can live legally and cooperatively.
4. Housing Match. Instead of creating a Rent Control Board, how about a Housing Match Board? Cambridge is full of people, mostly elderly, who have extra room. They might welcome an additional person living with them, whether for assistance, income, chores, or just companionship. Craigslist and NextDoor provide ways for individuals to trade goods and services, but don’t offer the kind of vetting that someone seeks before they welcome another into their home. What if the city developed guidelines to define and match these opportunities?
5. Legislate and/or Tax Dwelling Units Taken Out of Service. If it can be legal for the city or state to establish maximum rents on privately owned property, why not consider other, more generative forms of controlling existing housing stock? Every block of my Strawberry Hill neighborhood has two family houses that have been converted to single-family, as well as two-family houses where the owners no longer rent their extra unit. In a city short of housing, do owners of multi-family buildings have a responsibility to rent them? Can the city restrict conversions that reduce the total number of dwelling units? At the very least, let’s levy a hefty tax on units taken out of service and allocate that money to creating new housing.
Increasing Housing Stock and Affordability through Public Measures
Regardless of zoning reform, inclusion requirements, and disincentives to take units off line, we are unlikely to address the problems of affordable housing for all our citizens though manipulating the parameters of private ownership. Some tenants will remain too poor; too challenging. Public interest in building and operating housing for people unable to participate in the private market has waxed and waned over the past century. But we have enough examples of doing it well that if we commit with purpose, and allocate the money required, we can house everyone.
1. Expand Section 8. The Section 8 program has many benefits, primary among them that it integrates tenants in the fabric of existing community. Section 8 does not increase the amount of housing per se, but offers access to more units for low-income people.
2. Build more affordable housing. Easier said than done. Whether through the Cambridge Housing Authority or local non-profits, we need more fully affordable housing projects. The recent 100% Affordable Overlay Zone is a good step in this direction. Now, we just have to pony up funding.
3. Build more alternative forms of housing. The private development market is not a forum for innovation. Developers only build what they know will rent: independent, full-service dwelling units. The more private amenities, the better. Publicly funded housing should move beyond creating warrens of individual apartments. We should use public resources to experiment with new, more sustainable and socially integrated forms: congregate housing where four-to-six-bedroom suites share common spaces; old school SRO housing in urban centers; even residential hotels where residents’ private suites come with chits to local restaurants or a subsidized dining room. All options that provide housing for single or coupled people in less space. All options that encourage people to be out and about. All options that, if proven successful, the private market will emulate.
No one of these suggestions will solve our housing crisis. Given our culture of uber-privacy, I doubt many will be realized. The American mania for autonomy baffles me. I’ve lived with other people my entire life, as family, spouse, or housemate. I find the tremendous benefit in having someone nearby—accountable for and accountable to—offsets the downside of, like, having to get along with someone else on a bad day. Besides, living among others is more sustainable, more affordable, and more sociable.
Our housing crisis is real. Implementing rent control is an easy feel-good that won’t really address the issue. This essay outlines eight other possibilities, none of which will resolve the problem in total, any of which can provide more housing, or more affordable housing, than rent control offers. The solutions I suggest—and there must be others—will be more difficult to bring forth than simply rechurning rent control.
Do we have the resolve required to rise beyond an approach already tainted, and implement real change in how we will live and how we will care for our fellow humans?