Boston’s deepening housing crisis and a tsunami of post-COVID disability show that it’s time for new ideas on housing.
Boston recently rose to third place on the list of priciest cities for renting in the US. This status isn’t new – housing costs have risen at least 53 percent since 2010. What is new is the effect of Covid-19 on housing supply and renter needs. Most housing experts have highlighted that the pandemic has exposed and worsened existing housing inequities. Yet thus far, few have pointed out the potential for a super-charged housing crisis fueled by Long Covid. With Covid-19 disabling up to one-third of survivors, Greater Boston’s aging, expensive housing stock may prove an insurmountable barrier for a deluge of newly disabled renters.
Massachusetts already has extensive affordable housing policies, but most residents don’t qualify for these apartments. Even if they do qualify, fewer than 5% of public housing units are accessible, and market-rate units are often housed in older walkups. Those with Long Covid can suffer from joint pain, dysautonomia, organ failure, and even permanent lung damage. For these Covid survivors, a walkup can keep them from making it outside. Most disabled Bostonians can barely afford these units, let alone pricier apartments in new buildings that may include some accessible units. Notably, the median age of housing stock in the state is 54 years old, or 30 years older than the ADA, which mandates accessible construction. In brief, we need more accessible affordable housing, and fast.
Where do we begin to address these issues? We can start by importing policies from France’s recent successful revolution in social housing construction for Paris.
Like Paris, Greater Boston is a historical region with an aging housing stock, medium-high population density, and large numbers of commuters from surrounding suburbs. Both cities are partial to historical low- or medium-rise buildings. Boston and Paris also have similar rentership rates at roughly 60 percent These shared characteristics make Boston an ideal candidate for importing French policy. Yet unlike Paris, Boston’s housing policy allows landlords to increase rent as they see fit, heightening housing barriers for disabled residents. France’s policy model providesan alternative to the endless cycle of affordability crises.
In 2010, the French government passed legislation that aimed to add 70,000 new units per year in Ile-de-France. These policies also instructed every town in the region—from the poorest neighborhoods to the wealthiest enclaves—to plan for least 25% affordable housing by 2025. While 20% of Boston units are income-restricted, this is limited to the City of Boston, and often relegates low-income residents to neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.
Advocates for private development often claim that social housing discourages construction. France demonstrates the opposite is possible with the right policy. For instance, easing excessive quality regulations reduced construction costs, which then helped add thousands of new units in just a couple of years. Since 1969, Massachusetts has employed a similar flexible-permitting policy, Chapter 40B, to great success. Yet Chapter 40B has no explicit accessible housing requirements; federal housing policies require just 5% of units in new construction to be accessible. With disabled people making up 20% of the population, and more coming due to Covid, 5% is simply not enough.
Furthermore, France’s recent policies paid special attention to adding housing on public land near rail stations. This allowed construction of greater numbers of affordable units in transit-oriented neighborhoods, bringing low-income renters closer to urban opportunities. Transit-adjacent units are especially important for disabled renters, who may be dependent on public transit. Such strategic development in commuter areas would help drive overall rental prices down. The Brookings Institution already advocated for implementing a similar policy in Boston.
How do these policies translate to accessible, affordable housing? Thanks to France’s social housing construction policies, the country has some of the lowest rates of rental burden for disabled residents in Europe—under ten percent. (By contrast, 61.1% of disabled renters in Massachusetts are rent-burdened.) France also has a comparatively low disparity in rates of substandard housing between disabled and non-disabled renters—4% in France, versus 7.5% in the EU as a whole.
Housing experts cite inadequate affordable housing as its own public health issue. If we want to avoid killing Boston with substandard, inaccessible housing, it’s high time that authorities learn lessons from affordable housing policies proven to work in peer cities like Paris.