Ten (OK – 11) Questions to be Asking about Affordable Housing in Massachusetts in 2022

As we begin our third year of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we continue to confront a housing crisis that existed long before we started wearing masks. At the same time, COVID-19 catalyzed political, economic, and social dynamics that worsened the housing crisis in some ways, but also underscored the importance of safe, stable, and affordable housing. Policies that would have seemed impossible before COVID, like eviction moratoria and 10-fold increases in emergency rental assistance, demonstrated their efficacy and potential.  What does this mean for affordable housing in 2022? I’m going to refrain from making any predictions – clearly our world is far too uncertain for that with so much riding on the virus, the economy, and our tangled and fractious political culture. Here are 11 things, however, that affordable housing advocates should be tracking and influencing over the next 12 months. 

  1.  Can We Prevent a Wave of Evictions? – Over the past 20 months, a comprehensive set of policies at the local, state, and federal levels combined with the extraordinary efforts of non-profit agencies and cooperative landlords helped tens of thousands of families avoid eviction and maintain their housing. While these efforts have certainly not prevented every eviction and there have been uneven results across the state, it is still an effort of which we can be proud. However, 2022 will likely bring some difficult decisions. Current federal funding for the Eviction Diversion Initiative is expected to run out in June at current spending rates; it will be hard to sustain this spending without significant new federal money.  Even if the pandemic finally ends and the economy stabilizes, housing insecurity will continue. How do we transition and to what? Can we make some of the new tenant protections permanent? Can we institutionalize a right to counsel for tenants? Can we finally enact the Tenant Opportunity to Purchase legislation? How do we balance the need for short-term emergency relief with the need to invest in long-term solutions that expand the stock of affordable housing?  
  2. How Quickly Can We Deploy Newly Appropriated ARPA Dollars? The legislature recently approved over $600 million in funding for affordable housing to be spent on new rental housing, homeownership housing, first-time homebuyer assistance, renovations of public housing, and a small pilot program to retrofit homes in Gateway Cities. MACDC and other advocates will be pushing to get this money out quickly and with rules that are simple, transparent, and fair. We are particularly excited to see an infusion of funding to expand homeownership opportunities and start to close the racial homeownership gap. MACDC will also be serving on the newly created State ARPA Equity and Accountability Panel that is charged with making sure that state and municipal ARPA funds are spent in ways that address long-term racial inequities. This could be a historic opportunity to increase transparency and equity in state and local government. 
  3. How Should We Allocate the Remaining ARPA Dollars? The state has $2.3 billion of additional ARPA funds to appropriate in 2022 and no shortage of ideas for how to spend it. MACDC is advocating that at least another $600 million be allocated to affordable housing, with deeper investment in homeownership and a new program to retrofit older housing, so it is healthier and safer. We also plan to work with the Coalition for an Equitable Economy to secure funding for small businesses.  
  4. Will the Housing Choices Legislation Begin to Yield Results? – Last January, the legislature finally enacted the Housing Choices law to support the production of more housing across the Commonwealth. We have already begun to see the law’s impact with municipalities being able to adopt new zoning via majority votes and abutters being required to post bonds when they sue developers.  The big thing to look for in 2022 is the implementation of the law’s Multi Family Zoning requirement in all MBTA Communities. In December, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development finally released draft guidelines for how this requirement will be enforced and those guidelines are now out for public comment until March.  The proposed guidelines could be a game changer for multi-family housing in the Commonwealth as they push municipalities to get serious about zoning reform. Advocates – both locally and statewide – need to keep advocating to make sure this law reaches its potential.  
  5. Can We Start to Close the Racial Homeownership GapEver since we emerged from the Foreclosure Crisis a decade ago, MACDC and others have pushed the state to adopt a more ambitious and thoughtful strategy for expanding homeownership opportunities and closing the racial homeownership gap. These efforts made little progress for years, so we made it a focus of the 2018 MACDC Convention and engaged the question with Governor Baker. In 2019, he announced the Commonwealth Builder program. We are now seeing a dramatic increase in efforts to close the racial homeownership gap. While we had hoped the Legislature would have adopted the Governor’s proposal to invest $500 million of ARPA money on homeownership, they did approve $180 million, and we hope/expect to see more with ARPA 2.0. The state now has funds to offer down-payment assistance, mortgage assistance, and to build more affordable homes creating an unprecedented opportunity to move the needle. We expect our members to be active participants in this effort. Meanwhile, the renewed focus on homeownership has also renewed the long-standing debate about how to reconcile the goal of securing long-term affordability with the goal of enabling wealth creation for first-time homebuyers. I expect this will be an active conversation in 2022 with perhaps some innovative policy solutions emerging that seek “both/and” solutions. 
  6. Will We Accelerate the Transformation to Climate Smart Housing? The past two years have seen a growing focus on the need to electrify and ultimately decarbonize the residential housing sector. This is a massive challenge given the sheer number of homes in the Commonwealth and the age of our housing stock. We also need to do this equitably so that lower-income tenants and homeowners can benefit from the transformation without being priced out of their homes and so communities of color participate in the economic opportunities created by this effort.  We are starting to see policy shifts at the state and local level, with significant reforms coming through the state’s 3-year Energy Efficiency Plan, to the Mass Save program; beefed up requirements for affordable housing developers in the Qualified Allocation Plan; and tighter building standards like Boston’s Building Emissions Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance (BERDO). MACDC is stepping up its climate efforts as a leader in the HERO Coalition and through our new partnership with LISC and New Ecology called the DASH Program – Decarbonizing Affordable Subsidized Housing. I expect this trend to accelerate with new policies and new funding in 2022 and beyond.  
  7. Can We Better Leverage Good Housing to Promote Good Health? Public health professionals and community developers have long understood the strong connection between stable, high-quality housing and better health outcomes. That connection became widely understood during the COVID-19 crisis. The question now is whether we can convert understanding into action. Many Massachusetts hospitals are stepping up their efforts to invest in supportive housing, housing affordability, and, occasionally, housing advocacy, often in partnership with our members. MACDC published a report in 2021 outlining how CDCs can build and strengthen such partnerships.  MACDC has also assembled a cross sector task force to build out a strategy for large-scale rehabilitation of poor quality housing to reduce health hazards such as lead paint, mold, and pest infestation. We are also building a coalition to advocate with the Legislature to allocate ARPA dollars for a new Massachusetts Healthy Homes Initiative. I’m hopeful that 2022 will be the year that we see these efforts accelerate and scale.  
  8. How Can We Stabilize Neighborhoods in our Gateway and Rural Communities?  MACDC will continue to work with our public and nonprofit partners on stabilizing neighborhoods, in Gateway Cities and small towns, where weak real estate markets coupled with limited public resources have resulted in significant property neglect, and in some cases abandonment. Through the Neighborhood Hub, we will continue to offer technical assistance to municipalities grappling with these challenges, coupled with new capital dollars provided through passage of the Economic Development Bill earlier this year. 
  9. Can Mayor Michelle Wu Advance Her Bold Vision for Boston? Boston voters elected a progressive Mayor in November who has promised bold action on a range of issues, including housing. Mayor Michelle Wu already announced plans to strengthen the City’s Linkage and Inclusionary Development programs, while advocating for state legislation that would enable the City to adopt a transfer tax on high-end real estate and to implement a modern rent stabilization program. She is also looking to reform – if not completely restructure – the Boston Planning and Development Agency. CDCs are excited to work with the new Mayor to design and implement an ambitious housing agenda for the city that can also inspire and motivate other cities across the state. 
  10. Will Housing be a Key Issue in the 2022 Gubernatorial Campaign? – Governor Baker’s decision to not seek re-election means that we can look forward to a wide-open campaign for Governor in 2022. So far, only Danielle Allen has put a housing agenda on her campaign website but look for all candidates to do so in early 2022. It is critical that housing receive attention from the candidates as well as the media and voters to ensure that it becomes central to the next Governor’s agenda. Both Governor Patrick and Governor Baker made housing a priority and yet there is still much more to do. Will the candidates do the same? What will they change? How can they move the needle further and faster? We will be asking these and other questions throughout the year.
  11. Can Congress Pass the Build Back Better Legislation? – Like people across this country, we will be watching closely as Congress continues to debate the Build Back Better legislation. The version adopted by the House of Representatives includes dramatic new investments in affordable housing, but there is certainly no guarantee that the final bill will do so – if a bill even passes.  It is hard to overstate the importance of this debate on the future of housing in the Commonwealth. With a new infusion of federal funding and updated federal policies, we could make dramatic progress. Without this legislation, it will be hard to scale up to the level we need.  We are grateful to have a Congressional Delegation that understands this and is fighting for this, but it appears our fate lies in senators from other parts of the country. 

 Like all years, 2022 is going to be busy for housing advocates. With so much on the table, however, 2022 could be more than busy – it could be transformational for tenants, homeowners, and communities across the Commonwealth. Let’s get to work!