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Despite Improvements, Boston Housing Now Among Nation's Most Unaffordable

Even though housing prices in Greater Boston are down almost 20 percent from what they were four years ago, this region is still one of the most unaffordable places to live in the country, according to a new report.

There are signs of recovery, with home sales and prices beginning to improve. But rents in Boston are now the second highest in the country, after San Francisco — even higher than in New York.

“Costs here in Boston have actually gone up relatively because prices have fallen so much further elsewhere,” said Barry Bluestone, dean of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University and co-author of the Boston Foundation’s 2009 housing report card (PDF).

The report, released Monday, reveals a spike in foreclosures over the last couple of years has driven up demand for rental housing and pushed up prices. Rents were up 11 percent this spring compared to the second quarter of 2005, Bluestone said.

“If this housing cycle looks like the last housing cycle, and it already does look that way, then it will be another four to five years until prices get back to where they were in 2005,” Bluestone said.

Overall, however, housing prices are beginning to stabilize across the nation as well as across Greater Boston, which Bluestone said could be a precursor to a recovery if demand for new houses begins to pick up.

For a short-run fix to rising rent, Bluestone recommends expanding voucher programs to help people pay the rent.

Bluestone said his long-term concern is of the slow growth in new housing stock, which Bluestone terms a “Third Civil War” playing out across the nation — the first being the Civil War in the 19th century, which the North won, and the second being the battle over where manufacturing would take place in the 20th Century, which the South won.

“The Third Civil War’s going to be what regions of the country, what metro areas, what states can retain and attract young people,” Bluestone said. “Housing costs (and) rents are going to be a critical decision in where people decide to move, where people decide to remain. If we can’t solve our housing price and rent problems in the future, we’re going to lose that civil war.”

Another problem, Bluestone said, is persuading young people and first-timers to buy into the market. He advocates federal legislation that would allow new homebuyers to purchase home insurance from the federal government. If a homebuyer is forced to sell the house after three years and ends up taking a loss, the government would insure 90 percent of the loss.

“This should get people into the market. It would be much cheaper than the $8,000 home tax credit we have now and I think it would stimulate more sales now to get the economy moving,” Bluestone said. Analysts expect prices to have recovered and continue rising over the next few years, so few people would suffer a catastrophic loss.

Bluestone said U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Newton, has endorsed his plan.

Chip Case, an economics professor at Wellesley College, said it is hard to predict what will happen if the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers expires.

“We are not out of the woods, unemployment is rising and rising rapidly here in the commonwealth,” Case said. “We’ve got a fair amount of uncertainty about where the housing market is going.”


WBUR’s Monica Brady-Myerov contributed to this report.

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  • http://www.neu.edu/dukakiscenter Dukakis Center

    To learn more about the annual Greater Boston Report Card, please visit the Dukakis Center website at http://www.neu.edu/dukakiscenter

  • Nancy M

    Why in one sentence do you report that Boston is one of the most unafordable places to live in the country and in another that home prices rising (a little) represent things “improving.” Your bias is that of a landowner. Please report on the matter fairly with representation from both sides.

  • Sam

    I had the same reaction after following the link and reading the report summary on the front page of the Dukakis Center web site. It basically says “the bad news is that prices didn’t fall enough, but the good news is that they won’t fall any more.” It is completely illogical.

  • http://thelifeofacity.com John A Keith

    The only thing worse than the first-time homebuyers’ $8,000 credit program would be Barry Bluestone’s crazy idea to offer homeowners price appreciation insurance.

    Why would we “guarantee” a price appreciation in only three years?? That would only encourage quick flips, etc. Three years???? Makes no sense.

  • John Furr

    Yep clearly biased from the view point of a landowner.

    I have a solution to our current housing problem. Do absolutely nothing. No tax credit, no price appreciation insurance, nothing. Do absolutely nothing. Let the market right itself. Let those unfotunate souls that bought at the top take their lumps. But fo the love of God get out of the way so the correction can run its course.

    If the government wants to do anything I would advocate stricter mortgage laws. 20% down…period. Yeah that probably would push prices down farther, but we need lower prices.

    The biggest reason the whole country is in the mess we are in is debt. So instead of taking our lumps and gettign out of debt what do we do? Yeah we take on more debt as a country to try and convince our already debt ridden populace to buy houses that are still overpriced by historical standards and which still will ultimately depreciate in value?

    I simply don’t get it? How can we as a country continue to make one bad decision after another? The governments job isn’t to protect the citizens form their own stupidity? Just as we shouldn’t lock people up for smoking marijuana we shouldn’t bail people out o bad decisions. It’s the land of the free..and that means having the freedom to make good choices and bad choices…but the consequences of each desicion needs to be felt to have a fair market.

  • Brian

    I agree. Leave the market alone. Stop rewarding and encouraging bad behavior. Artificially propping up housing prices is not a good thing.

  • Mark

    Let Boston choke under its speculators and super luxury condos. No city can survive for long with simply one extreme end of the class scale represented in it. The few programs they do have are only aimed at the poor (public housing, a few thousand dollars assistance, etc). The rest of us in the middle get squeezed. I guess as long as the wealthy have the poor to wash their cars and serve their coffee they are content.

    Prices need to fall more. A LOT more. Saying prices have stabilized is a good thing is a slap in the face. There is no way I could ever afford to live in the Boston area. I’ve been priced out. I’ll have to take my science and IT skills elsewhere.

  • Chris DeLicia

    I have to disagree with the last poster, who contradicts himself. A city CAN survive with only the very rich and very poor. Question is whether we will let Boston continue on that route. A “hands-off” policy doesn’t make prices fall! In fact the stabilization of prices suggests the opposite, they will continue to rise. Getting angry about it doesn’t help fix the problem or change numbers. This is economics- the slap in the face is out of you’re own imagination, its not in the numbers

  • Ellen MacInnis

    The federal government subsidizes home ownership through the tax deduction for mortgage interest. This is essentially welfare for those of us wealthy enough to afford to own residential property.

  • Stephen

    Cumulative CPI for 2005->2009 is also 11%. So Boston rents are effectively price stable while resale values declined about 25% in real terms. So the real news is old news: Ridiculous policies advocated by fools like Barney Frank led to a nationwide real estate bubble, which has finally collapsed.

    More interesting would be a comparison of rental values to cost of ownership. In the SF Bay, we’re just reaching parity again, after more than 10 years of over valuation. with another year of devaluation of residential property,
    we should be back to a point at which owners are compensated for risk to capital, and should begin to see
    investments made again.

    The problem of course, is that government agencies from
    the Fed to the local housing board are doing everything they can to reinflate the bubble. If people like Frank have their way, we’ll just go right back into the same cycle of inflating prices with subsidies, with developers and bankers as the prime beneficiaries.

  • Kathryn N

    I think one of the things that no one is talking about here that I find just appalling, is the condition of the more “affordable” apartments for rent inside the city of Boston. After living in the South End, Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Somerville and Cambridge and having many friends in the other “downtown” neighborhoods, I am still amazed at what we are asked to pay for the most sadly unmaintained properties I have ever encountered. Apartments with broken windows and little to no heat, floors that rotted out from under my furniture, bathrooms with 80 year old fixtures, and insect problems are all too familiar occurrences in the apartments that I and my friends have occupied. Just to afford to stay where you are within reasonable walking distance to mass transit, you have to sacrifice owning cars, which I agree with but these apartments are just ridiculous. Landlords can and will find someone who is willing to pay the money to live in these trash-heaps, so they refuse to update or even to properly maintain these units. When will someone stand up to the miserable slum lords that own the property and finally say no to the exorbitant rent and despicable living conditions that most of us had to endure while attending school and trying to eek out a meager existence in the city? I have finally had my fill and upon graduation this spring, promptly moved to another city with cheaper rent by half for an apartment that is newly constructed and very well maintained. What will Boston do if all the young academics flee the city as I have done upon finishing their education?

  • John Connor

    I just want to add another point to this whole discussion. Commodities used to build houses are in short supply and costs are rising, so will the labor costs overtime due to inflation. Also, if the currency depreciates it will only push up the value of homes denominated in that currency. The point is prices will only go up and its better to buy today. Areas such as Newton and Back bay have restrictions and no new homes will be added to these neighbourhoods which could keep pushing the prices of existing supply higher there. To address the issue of affordability the market will adapt and it could be in the form of 100yr mortgages like in Japan.

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