The State Needs to Overhaul its Housing Regulations

Originally printed in The Boston Globe

February 3, 2003
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

Building housing in Greater Boston takes too much time, involves too many regulations, requires too much community process, does not take advantage of modern information systems - and, in the end, costs too much.
For years, government officials and nonprofit developers have strived to build and rehabilitate housing to meet the needs of the people and maintain the economic vitality of the region. Two approaches - mandates and partnerships - have dominated the efforts.
The primary mandate for housing has been Chapter 40B, which has jolted a number of cities and towns to develop strategies for building below-market housing, but has also provoked a bitter backlash. Local governments, meanwhile, have partnered with community developers to assemble tax credits, subsidies, land, and other assets to build housing. The Boston region has become a national model for such efforts, reviving once-lost neighborhoods like Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Dorchester.
But to address the housing crisis - from homeless shelters to middle-class homes - the state needs to overhaul a vast tangle of regulations.
The Commonwealth poses a paradox. On the one hand, everyone knows that housing prices threaten the economy and lives of ordinary people. From a 2-1 just two decades ago, the ratio of average home prices to average income has reached 5-1 today in Greater Boston. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is now $1,035.
But while the need is palpable, resistance to new housing is fierce. In community after community, residents say that the costs of housing are just too much. New homes bring new people, with expensive services not covered by local taxes. New homes also threaten open space, aggravate traffic congestion, and change the ''character of the community.''
NIMBYism's partner in crime is the regulatory system for housing development. From land acquisition to the opening of the home for the first time, regulations pose enormous barriers to building.
A recent study by the Pioneer Institute and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston has found a stubborn system that subverts housing development at every stage and in virtually every community. In a way, it is a wonder any housing gets built when you consider:
Land disposition. State and local governments take years to dispose of unused land. Even when the state acts, local governments often prevent land from being used for housing. Why is it hard to get ahold of tax-foreclosed properties, old state hospitals, and land near transit stations?
Building codes. It's not so much that the codes are too restrictive, as developers argue. But the code is opaque. It's often difficult to get access to information about the code. Perhaps more important, local officials quietly expand the codes' intent. The state needs to train and oversee these officials so builders are not given the runaround.
Other ''specialty'' codes. Making matters worse, the building code is just one of nine state codes - each with its own board and process for local implementation. Code officials often do not talk with each other and sometimes adopt contradictory standards. The Commonwealth should pull these entities under one roof.
Local zoning. Cities and towns have dramatically ''down-zoned'' residential areas. In Boston, the home of the three-decker, it's now illegal to build one. A 5,000-square-foot lot in West Roxbury is now considered ''unbuildable'' because of new zoning. Virtually every neighborhood allows much less housing than just a generation ago.
Environmental regulations. The state's septic regulations are among the strictest in the nation, and development near wetlands is almost impossible. Many localities adopt regulations that far exceed state standards.
Community preservation. Sometimes, even when it's trying to help, government makes it harder to build housing. The Community Preservation Act, for example, allows localities to levy a property-tax surcharge to fund housing, open space, and historic preservation. Sounds like a good idea - until you realize that antihousing forces use the money to buy up buildable land to prevent housing development.
Community process. We have come a long way from the urban renewal era. These days, NIMBYists prevent housing from being built even on lots that once had housing. Rather than giving a handful of activists veto power, we need clear standards that allow housing development, shifting the burden of the argument in favor of the builders.
Mandates, money, and partnerships can build some housing, but not enough. Governor Mitt Romney should lead an effort to reduce barriers to housing.