Regulation: The Real Culprit in Our Housing Crisis

Originally printed in Worcester Business Journal

May 1, 2006
Editorial in the Worcester Business Journal

Exclusionary zoning and a maze of local restrictions have drastically depressed housing production in our region, according to a new study co-authored by Boston's Pioneer Institute and Harvard University's Rappaport Institute. As a result, median home prices have skyrocketed. In the 1980 to 2004 period, the study found, three Massachusetts districts ranked second, third, and fourth nationally in home-price escalation, adjusted for inflation: Boston-Quincy (+210%), Cambridge-Newton-Framingham (+180%), and Essex County (+179%). Even Worcester, traditionally viewed as affordable, ranked #9 with an increase of 149%, a bigger jump than even San Francisco or San Jose.

Urban experts we talked to were impressed with the depth of this study, which looked at 187 Massachusetts communities as far west as Paxton. Among the most telling observations:

  • In the 1960s, these municipalities issued 172,459 permits for housing, versus just 84,105 during the 1990s.
  • Increasingly, local governments have shut out multi-family housing, the most affordable shelter. Multi-family accounted for more than half of all permits in the '60s. In the '90s, single-family claimed more than 80 percent of permits.
  • Municipalities employ a web of regulations and bylaws that are often far stricter than state recommendations. These include: caps on annual permits, minimum lot sizes, wetlands regulations, septic-system requirements, and road-width rules.

There's no land shortage. The study found that 25 localities within the region have less than one home for every two acres, yet they combined for less than 600 new housing units from 1980 to 2002. Half of the communities have zoned over 50% of their land for one-acre lot sizes or larger.

This landmark study should justifiably trigger a call for an even more aggressive role by the state in spurring development in our 351 home-rule fiefdoms. Urban Policy Professor Rachel Bratt of Tufts University notes that 30% of the housing built in the state and 80% of all low- and moderate-income housing can already be traced to Chapter 40B. This state statute, bitterly opposed by many local governments, allows housing proponents to override local zoning boards if at least 10% of a community's housing inventory cannot be classified as affordable.

The Pioneer/Rappaport study strongly suggests that communities on their own can't be expected to expand housing supply and that the state must take the lead. Still, we agree with Eleanor White of the Commonwealth Housing Task Force that the state must employ carrots as well as sticks. This should include expansion of such voluntary programs as 40R and 40S, which give communities state development aid and additional school funds if they initiate high-density, mixed-use projects. The state must also sharply increase subsidy aid, both for developers who want to build affordable housing for lower-income families, who need rental vouchers or cut-rate mortgages.

Among other steps to create essential housing for this state's growth, local governments must streamline the new-development approval process, which has jumped from less than a year in the 1980s to three or four years today, notes Guy Webb of the Builders Association of Central Massachusetts. Such delays add immensely to costs. Finally, there needs to be far more planning on the regional level, involving clusters of communities, to ensure we make the best choices for locating housing development, while preserving natural resources.