Housing and Public Health

Mass General Brigham, which is Massachusetts’s biggest private employer, is taking on a public health issue that is dear to me: housing. They stand with Representative Mike Connolly and House Bill No. 1377. Why is it that a hospital system supports this affordable housing initiative and the National Association of Realtors® and the Massachusetts Association of Realtors® opposes it (and act against it)?

Why Mass General Brigham went out of its way to make a public stand in support of House Bill No. 1377.

Housing and public health:

Mass General Brigham has a legitimate interest in reducing homelessness and house-related illness. It is well known that improved housing conditions are associated with better health. Having affordable housing options increases the number of people who are living in safe properties.

Housing standards have improved over the years. Things we take for granted do not exist in some places not so far from here. They didn’t exist, as recently as a hundred years ago, in eastern Massachusetts.

  • Central heating, with all rooms heated, was not universal here. In my real estate career, I have been in many houses with unheated rooms, and even with the entire top level unheated.
  • Much of the housing stock had lead paint on it. Lead paint is poisonous, when ingested or breathed. About 30 percent of our housing stock still has lead paint hazards.
  • Then there are bedbugs, roaches, mice, rats: all those little critters that are vectors of disease and like to live on our houses.

Housing and employment:

Mass General Brigham has a vested interest in having affordable housing for their staff. Hospitals don’t run on doctors alone. America has been seeing a shortage of nurses well before the Covid Pandemic. It has gotten worse in the past two years.

One of the disincentives for young nurses to move to greater Boston is our housing costs. Therefore, it is in the interests of big employers in healthcare to have a housing stock that has a nurse-sized mortgage or rent.

Registered nurse’s salaries start at about $55,000 a year. That is enough for about $1400 a month in rent, which is not so great for a single person who doesn’t want to live with roommates. That income will get around a $300,000 mortgage, which won’t buy much within an easy commute to Boston’s hospitals.

What is the housing bill that is getting hate from the Realtors® and property developers?

House Bill 1377 — The idea of a transfer fee has been in the works in Somerville for years. Here’s a post from 2017 about affordable housing initiatives. The transfer fee would come into play when a property is sold. Anywhere from one-half of a percent to two percent of the sale price would go to a fund that develops affordable housing. The bill excludes sales that are below the median sale price for a single family home. It also excludes sales that are not really sales, like transfers within families, divorce reallocation of assets, foreclosures, or sales to the municipality. It is structured to put the larger part of the fee burden on people who are doing speculative buying and reselling.

The way that Massachusetts law works, Somerville cannot choose to create this fee without approval at the state level. That is what is in question now. Somerville wants this method of funding affordable housing, but the State Legislature has to approve it.

What other housing laws do the Realtors® hate?

Bill #4208- Tenants’ Right of First Refusal- Somerville passed a comprehensive law to protect tenants who were being asked to move so the two- or three-family houses they live in could be converted to condos. Previous rules about giving tenants proper notice had a big loophole, making it easy to not renew a lease, then condo-ize in a matter of months. The Somerville rule gives tenants the right to arrange to purchase the property at market rate, or sign that right over to an affordable housing developer (like Somerville Community Corportation).

Bill #889Rent Stabilization and Evictions- This would allow municipalities to limit rent increases based on consumer price indexes. There are many exemptions, including owner occupied two and three-family houses, shared single family homes, dorms, public housing, hospitals and residential care sites, and new construction (which complied with affordable housing restrictions at the time they were built).

Bill #1378- To Remove the Prohibition of Rent Control- – Until 1997, there was rent control in three cities in Massachusetts (Cambridge, Brookline, and Boston). By ballot initiative in 1994, rent control was abolished by voters throughout the state.  This bill #1378 would allow municipalities to reinstate rent control within their town or city.

Quick note: I lived in Somerville, as a renter, in 1994. My rent on a two-bedroom apartment was $650 in 1995. The same apartment rented for $1100 in 1998. Surprise! When rent control ended in Cambridge and Brookline, there was rent inflation in nearby towns.

Another historical note: In 1986 and 1994, Massachusetts voided mandatory seat belt laws by ballot initiative. Mandatory seat belt laws were reinstated by the State Legislature, two times. They are in effect today. Our legislators knew that using seat belts was good policy; they overrode the voter’s choice, twice. Similarly, rent control in a small number of cities in the Commonwealth had a significant affect on rent stabilization until 1997. It is good policy for maintaining affordable rentals in the Commonwealth.






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