Rents are skyrocketing, vacations suck but new apartments are illegal

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Doug Quattrochi

On the second anniversary of Massachusetts’ regrettable inhalation of the global pandemic, renters and buyers are now finding the housing crisis where it was before. Rental vacancy peaked at 8% in September 2020, but is now back down to 0.8%. According to BostonPads, average rents for three-, four-, and five-bedroom units are at all-time highs, I’m guessing because households are doubling and tripling. House prices have never really suffered at all, and nationwide up about 30% since 2019. Personal disposable income, on the other hand, has only increased 14 percent.

Some in real estate may appreciate the high prices. But unaffordable prices are bad for everyone. Many are learning that contract rents quickly evaporate when excessive tenants miss their first payment. And tenant advocates have always blamed those of us in real estate for the housing supply. Our businesses are exposed to perpetual political risk. We need to make the case for tenant defense to those who limit the market: those of us who enforce single-family zoning. What are tenant advocates saying?

Tenants want local rent control, but shouldn’t

Bills heard by the Joint Legislative Assembly Committee on Housing between March 1 and May 9 would bring the Commonwealth straight back to the rent control days. We once had rent control in Massachusetts. It failed. We repealed it in 1994.

Rent control has artificially suppressed property assessments and tax revenue. This created an increase in state assistance to these cities beyond what would otherwise have been due to them.

Rent control has reduced the supply of housing. In 2009, the American Institute for Economic Research found that repealing rent control “was associated with a 6% increase in the likelihood that a dwelling would be a rental”. If you apply that to Boston alone, that would be like taking 16,000 units off the market.

Rent control has had a disparate racist impact. David Sims, a researcher at Brigham Young University, showed in 2007 that people of color could rent controlled units half as often as would be expected based on the general population. This is due to an effect predicted by Heikki Loikkanen in 1985. Landlords who can only charge such a high amount will keep homes vacant longer in the hope of a “perfect” candidate.

Even in the presence of strong laws protecting candidates from personal racism, America and Massachusetts still have a problem with systemic racism. Consider a typical background check. The Sentencing Project shows that African Americans constitute 53% of drug convictions, although they represent only 14% of drug addicts. Applicants of color were unfairly and disproportionately less likely to be “perfect” and obtain rent-controlled housing.

Despite all this, rent control remains intuitively useful in the short term! Too few see the long-term failures. Time and time again, people have stood up for him, voted for him, and planned ballot initiatives to bring him back. They will start again if we do not react by creating more low-cost rental housing.

“Family” zoning is the real disease

When I became the owner, I was disappointed not to receive a ceremonial toilet and robe uniform. (Otherwise why would I have joined the company?) But I received something far more valuable: anti-discrimination training.

Landlords simply cannot find out about a household’s marital status or relationships. It is good and fair. Yet this illegal survey is exactly what we allow cities to do with zoning. “This lot is single family” – the language is discriminatory. The effect is mind-numbing, even in areas we consider dense.

Did you know that about half of Greater Boston is single-family? It’s true. Even the city of Boston itself has minimum lot sizes, floor area ratios, and parking requirements that combine to make it impossible for anyone without special permission to add units. It is often not even possible to rebuild units lost to fire without variance. You can see the actual single-family zoning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Board zoning atlas.

There is no safety motivation for single family zoning. Safety is supported in the building code and state health code. These codes are agnostic to family relationships, or the lack thereof. Codes guarantee minimum square footage, fire escape, ventilation and more.

There is no aesthetic motivation for single-family zoning. Does density mean skyscraper? No. The so-called “soft density” means dividing the already constructed buildings for better indoor use.

For example, California recently adopted a statewide package, Creating opportunities for all, to eliminate the required single-family zoning and create duplexes. Oregon passed a similar law in 2019 eliminating bans on duplexes and townhouses in cities with more than 10,000 residents. Minneapolis was the first, their ordinance completely prohibits single-family zoning as long as exterior conditions are met, such as yard space. These communities are not suddenly ugly. They are also not overrun with traffic. Nor are their classrooms overflowing with students (assuming pre-pandemic seating).

Choosing Massachusetts housing was a start, but we still have a lot to do. If influencing zoning, please work towards a soft density. Make apartments legal in your city. We cannot afford not to.

Doug Quattrochi is executive director of MassLandlords Inc.

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