Many of us remember that stunning statistic: according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the average net worth of a white household in the Greater Boston area is nearly a quarter of a million dollars, but it is just eight dollars for Black households. Eight dollars. That rate is higher for Hispanic households, though it is still a fraction of the wealth that white households possess.
Addressing this inequity is personal to me. Having worked in the Boston area for decades, I have seen first-hand how difficult it is for members of traditionally underserved communities, namely Black and Hispanic residents, to purchase their own homes. Without homes of their own, people struggle to build multi-generational wealth. As a result, racial and economic inequities persist and grow unchecked.
One of the greatest ways we can combat this inequity is by ensuring that traditionally underserved communities have access to safe, reliable, affordable housing. Doing so will allow them to develop multi-generational wealth, bolstering their own communities and the entire Greater Boston area with it.
As 2022 President of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors®, I understand what steps must be taken — and what must be avoided — to increase the presence of safe, reliable, affordable housing in the region, and build toward the future for so many by creating generational wealth.
We have embraced the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) Homelessness Prevention Program. Pioneered by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the RAFT program provides emergency financial assistance to those at imminent risk of homelessness. The program sets aside specific funding for more vulnerable groups, including elders, unaccompanied youths and people with disabilities. I am proud to say our members have volunteered to assist families in filling out the applications required for them to access these funds.
We have also provided financial support to the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance’s (MAHA) STASH Program which assists first time generational home buyers afford home ownership. It’s a race conscious homeownership policy that has a track record of success. Programs like these are a critical first step to establishing generational wealth, as they allow individuals to keep their homes in times of crisis, provide stability, and offer the dream of homeownership. As a society we must further these programs, but Realtors® and property owners must also make individuals aware of it.
We must embrace the state’s new Housing Choice law. Passed just last year, this program provides cities and towns the tools critical to developing more safe, reliable, affordable housing. For instance, it lowers the voting threshold necessary to passing certain types of zoning ordinances and bylaws from a two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority.
The Initiative also mandates that specific cities and towns – known as MBTA Communities – develop multi-family housing units within walking distance of public transit stops. Policies like these emphasize why the Housing Choice Initiative is absolutely essential to developing more reliable, affordable housing in Massachusetts. It streamlines the wide-scale production of housing, making the prospect of owning a home in Massachusetts far more tenable than before.
Since its implementation, the Initiative has already led to the production of more than 50,000 multi-family housing units. While more are undoubtedly needed, this shows that, with time, the Housing Choice Initiative will bring opportunity to so many in Massachusetts that currently lack it.
While these are just a few steps we can take to empower traditionally underserved communities in the Greater Boston area, there are steps we must avoid taking. One such step is the re-implementation of rent control. It is easy to empathize with the views of rent control supporters: housing appears to be getting more and more expensive, especially for those who are neither white nor wealthy. Unquestionably, home ownership is out of reach for far too many.
Rent Control offers people in need false hope but is not the solution. While it could benefit a small group of people, rent control hurts many more and will undercut our economy. This is because there is little way to guarantee that those who most likely deserve rent controlled units actually receive them. Furthermore, rent control discourages landlords from conducting property upkeep and maintenance, as doing so becomes too expensive. Additionally, rent control discourages the building of new properties. As a result, housing supply becomes more limited, making existing properties more expensive. This in turn fuels gentrification, with long-time renters and owners leaving their neighborhoods because they can no longer afford to live there.
By taking the right steps and avoiding the wrong ones, we can increase the presence of safe, reliable, affordable housing in Massachusetts, and bolster multi-generational income for all. Yet in doing so, it is absolutely essential we take the right steps and avoid the wrong ones.
Melvin A. Viera, Jr. is the 2022 President of the Greater Boston Association of Realtors®.
He has been a Realtor® for more than 30 years, currently with RE/MAX Destiny in Boston.