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Should California look to Massachusetts to fix its housing crisis?

September 13, 2017

Housing lines the street of a classic Boston neighborhood. Photo via Pixabay

POAH CEO and President Aaron Gornstein talks about the history of Massachusetts affordable housing policy – a possible model nationwide.

By Matt Levin, CALmatters

...While California tops the list of states with insane housing costs, it’s by no means a uniquely Golden State phenomenon. Building affordable housing—and particularly getting cities and other localities to permit its construction—is a tough endeavor that has bedeviled state policymakers across the country.

So where should Californians look to solve a problem that feels so intractable? Is there any state that’s doing it well?

Affordable housing experts suggest legislators find inspiration in Massachusetts. For more than 40 years, the state’s signature affordable housing policy—Massachusetts “40B”—has served as a model for how states can motivate and sometimes bully reluctant localities into meeting their fair share of affordable housing.

Massachusetts has led the way when it comes to ensuring housing is built for households of all income stripes, says Carol Galante, faculty director of the UC Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. “Massachusetts says, ‘We don’t take away your local control. We only take away your local control when you’re not meeting an important state goal.’ ”

What’s the secret sauce in Massachusetts? And do the three bills in California’s proposed housing package have it?

The Massachusetts Model

The first thing to know about Massachusetts 40B is that it’s old—the state legislature passed the law in 1969. At the time, Boston was creating affordable housing for its low-income residents, but the city’s wealthy suburban neighbors weren’t so keen on the idea.

“It kind of grew out of the civil rights movement,” says Aaron Gornstein, who was former undersecretary for housing and community development under former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. “It was the strength of urban legislators wanting to ensure people had access to affordable housing outside of Boston, and that it wasn’t Boston’s sole responsibility and it was more of a regional shared responsibility.”

Remarkably, 40B has remained intact for five decades without a single legislative change to the law itself (there have been some administrative tweaks, but no changes to the actual statute). That’s partly due to its simplicity, which many credit as a key to its success.

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