Auchincloss says attitude to housing in Massachusetts is changing

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Congressman Jake Auchincloss. Courtesy photo
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abass@northstarreporter.com

Congressman Jake Auchincloss believes lack of housing is the number one issue in Massachusetts right now, and believes voters understand the gravity of the situation.

The Democratic congressman of Massachusetts’s Fourth Congressional District sat down with the North Star Reporter in his Washington D.C office where he discussed how Massachusetts voters are encouraging more housing in their neighborhoods.

Auchincloss, who represents North Attleborough, said communities are starting to support politicians and plans that support building more housing and loosening strict zoning laws.  He also advocated for a variety of housing stock to be built and talked about challenges facing his district in regards to complying with housing laws.

 

NORTH STAR REPORTER: So let’s start off with this question, what do you think is going on that there is an openness to build more housing in Massachusetts?

AUCHINCLOSS: This is an issue I’m very familiar with, you know, as a city counselor in Newton for three terms and I saw and was part of the evolution that you’re describing–where the greater acceptance of a YIMBY (Yes in my backyard) attitude towards housing. It’s part of a broader, what’s been called abundance agenda that has gained some traction.

I think at the core of it, it’s the recognition that the cost of housing is the biggest problem in Massachusetts. And the most effective policy solutions are supply side solutions

 

So the more supply there is to outweigh demand, costs go down?

Yes, and it’s also important to ask: how do you define cost?  Cause that sounds like a wonky thing, but it actually is critically important. The best way to think about the cost of housing is as a percentage of the regional, of, of the labor markets median income. So in general, you want to keep the cost of housing down.

Housing markets are defined by their law by the labor market. North Attleborough doesn’t have a housing market, Newton doesn’t have a housing market, Franklin doesn’t have a housing market. Greater Boston, however, does have a housing market. Greater Providence has a housing market.

Within that labor market, you want the cost of housing to be 30% of the area median income. That’s a general standard and goal for being rent burdened.

 

Some advocates say affordable housing projects are not helping address those with lower incomes and there is a lack of focus on low-income housing.

We need to build all kinds of housing. That means we need multi-family housing, mixed use housing, single family housing, and accessory dwelling units particularly in Massachusetts. What we’re short on has been what’s called missing middle housing, which is multi-unit housing.

That’s sort of the particular shortage that we have.

There is this presumption that you can only help one part of the market or the other, and that if you build more market rate housing that doesn’t help affordable housing and vice versa. That’s not accurate. I just said that housing markets are defined by their labor markets. Any time you build an additional unit of housing within a labor market, you help the overall cost of housing in that labor market.

 

Where does the federal government play a role?

There are some types of housing that the market is never gonna organically produce on its own, which is why the federal government has a very successful low-income housing tax credit program, which induces the production of more affordable housing. In fact, it’s the biggest producer of affordable housing in the country.

 

Have you talked to your Republican colleagues about housing?

A lot of housing policy at the federal level tends to be less about land use and zoning and more about the low income tax credit as well as direct support for the HOME investment partnership program, which is a grant program for states to build for housing.

 

I believe personally that land use and zoning are the single biggest factors in housing and affordability. And it’s, and it’s why I’m a big supporter of the State’s MBTA Communities Act, as well as the Housing Choice Act. Both of which collectively really press localities to build more multi-family housing, which we, which we really desperately need.

 

What did you think changed in areas like Newton and North Attleborough to embrace more multi-family housing?

I think it’s just a, it’s sort of an overall recognition, within the progressive part of the Democratic Party that you’ve gotta have supply side approaches as well as the main inside approaches. If not, you can’t just provide subsidies for people looking to buy it or rent homes. If you keep the supply static, you’re not gonna actually overall reduce cost. You’ve gotta build more housing. And that means you’re going after zoning.

 

Some housing and transit advocates are calling on you and others to go beyond the MBTA Communities Act such as enacting rent control.  Do you think the state is on the right path or does it need to take more measures?

I know that Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll are laser focused on compliance with the M BTA Communities Act.  We passed a bill, but now towns and cities have to enact the law.  Newton and Brookline have to meet a deadline at the end of this year. Other cities and towns have to meet it by the end of next year to upgrade their zoning to have more units. I think both the Governor and Lt. Governor are both very focused right now on ensuring the cities and towns comply. Also, as Attorney General Andrea Campbell has said: it’s not optional. It’s the law.

 

Has there been any complaints in your district about the act?

Yeah, there’s been, there’s been spirited debate in both Brookline and Newton. I know. And I’ve been following it closely in both towns.

Most Bay State voters approach housing as a state and local issue.  And I agree that the most impactful policy solutions for housing affordability are at the state and local level.  It’s zoning and land use primarily in increasing the supply.  Having said that, I’m very committed to the low income housing tax credit program and to other ways that the federal government can use it.   It’s the tax credit provisions and its mortgage financing provisions that make housing more affordable.