Last week the Boston Globe reported that the median single family home in the Greater Boston area now sells for around $900,000. For those of us who’ve been suffering through the regional housing crisis firsthand, it was the sort of news that affirms your lived experience — yet still leaves you feeling shocked and gutted.
I know of which I speak. Like many others, I entered several of Boston’s affordable housing lotteries last year. In early June, I learned that I’m number 1,358 on the list for a single studio apartment. Guess how many total units are available?
It’s ugly out here. Over the last several months, there have been reports of renters bidding against each other for scarce properties, towns using housing funds to block the construction of new housing, and of course, Massachusetts residents fleeing to states with more affordable housing.
Ira A. Jackson, co-founder of The Civic Action Project, wasn’t exaggerating when he argued that Massachusetts needs a “housing moon shot.” Our current approach to solving the crisis is not yielding the kind of results that keep people housed, and the common policy prescriptions that are tossed about these days — zoning reform, rent stabilization, and building more market rate housing — are necessary yet insufficient, even when enacted at the same time.
There’s a crucial missing ingredient from our housing agenda: Public housing.
The inescapable problem with our current system is the fact that housing in the U.S. is treated as an appreciable asset.
The inescapable problem with our current system — the thing that makes it so tricky to pair rent control with pro-development zoning adjustments — is the fact that housing in the U.S. is treated as an appreciable asset. Most homeowners and developers are looking to profit from their investments, which incentivizes blocking others from having housing stability. Most of the market rate buildings that are allowed to go up, and the zoning policies that get passed, are designed to protect the profits of the ownership class, preserving a dichotomy of winners and losers in the housing market. Public housing offers an escape from this by distributing housing like a utility.
But not all public housing systems are created equal, and the bad rap that public housing gets in America is rooted in decades of structural racism and privatization.
Other countries like Singapore and Austria offer public housing to a broad array of citizens — a hot dog vendor and a legal secretary could be neighbors in a well-kept apartment building, each of them paying the same portion of their income as rent — but America’s public housing is a minimalist safety net for the poorest.
The suburbanization of America and the “white flight” that took place after World War II led to federal disinvestment in our public housing stock. The buildings that weren’t demolished or sold during the urban renewal years (which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Black families) were often grossly neglected. For many, the image we recall whenever public housing is mentioned — isolated towers in varying states of decay — is rooted in the reality that in the U.S., most public housing has been a planned concentration of poverty.
But it doesn’t have to remain this way. In several other countries around the world, the idea at the heart of public housing has been successfully realized, and we should be resuscitating that idea in America. It’s a means by which we could permanently make affordable housing available and partially de-commodify our brutal housing market.
One pertinent example lies in Vienna.
In 2020, shortly before the pandemic began, I traveled to Austria’s most populous city, arguably the scene of the world’s most well-known and successful public housing model. In Vienna, public housing is called “social housing” and that’s because more than 60% of the city’s population lives in some form of public housing. These developments range from apartment towers with built-in resources like daycare, gyms and supermarkets, to smaller city-assisted co-ops where the founders rent out a portion of the apartments to lower-income tenants. Every building I visited was in excellent shape, and several appeared brand new. Fellow journalists who’ve traveled to Vienna have come away just as impressed by the city’s housing model.
We’ve already reached the logical conclusion of what happens when most housing is treated as an investment product first and foremost.
Across the U.S., advocates and lawmakers are now exploring the possibility of replicating that model on municipal and state levels. In California, Hawaii and New York, housing organizers and elected officials have joined up to create ambitious legislation that would fund the construction of modern mixed-income public housing. Maryland has already vaulted forward with one such program in Montgomery County, which is expected to yield 10,000 publicly owned apartments over the next 20 years. Last year, Rhode Island lawmakers approved a budget to create a public developer that would operate at a statewide scale.
But there are limits to how much states and cities can achieve on their own. The Faircloth Amendment, a Clinton-era policy which tightly limits the amount of public housing federal authorities can build, would have to be repealed by the federal government to allow public development that’s scaled to the national housing crisis. But localized exploratory efforts are a signal that public housing, could re-emerge as a game changer.
It’s past time for Massachusetts to join the growing list of states considering the full potential of public housing as a viable alternative and smart strategy. Last week, Rep. Mike Connolly introduced a bill that would fund the state’s first mixed income housing program and the Legislature should take up that bill without delay.
We’ve already reached the logical conclusion of what happens when most housing is treated as an investment product first and foremost. This mainstream model of wealth-building — so often celebrated by political leaders and financial planners — is contingent upon some of us having stable housing, while the rest of us fruitlessly grasp for it.
Without a public option, housing will only slide further out of reach.