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A Massachusetts state legislator has a big idea to ease the urban rent crisis

Rainbow Over Boston Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Boston is one of several big coastal metropolitan areas suffering from a severe housing shortage driven by excessive limits on housing construction. A bill by Massachusetts General Assembly member Kevin Honan that's cleared the housing committee offers a glance at what a solution to the housing crisis gripping the United States is likely to look like.

Not action by the federal government, which is too remote from local land use issues to make a decisive difference. And not action by local governments, which are too tied up in picayune concerns and risk aversion to make the changes America needs.

What America needs is for states — particularly states like Massachusetts, California, and New York — to take the lead and recognize that housing policy is too important to be left up to a motley assortment of town councils and neighborhood committees. If the economies of America's highest-wage, best-educated metropolitan areas are going to grow, then they need to have places for people to live, and it's state governments that are going to have to make them do it.

The idea: force towns to zone for multifamily uses

Honan's bill does something pretty simple. As Clark Ziegler and Christopher Oddleifson of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership describe it:

The bill would require that every city and town plan for multifamily housing and designate areas where it is allowed as-of-right. It would also require every community to allow single-family homes clustered on modest lots in compact, walkable neighborhoods surrounded by open space. Cities and towns would be compensated for any net increases in school costs that result from their approval of multifamily and cluster developments.

Were the bill to pass, it would, in essence, mandate that the Greater Boston area no longer add people exclusively through increasing sprawl into rural areas. Instead, the many suburban towns and cities that house the vast bulk of its population would have to get denser as well — permitting the construction of apartments and rowhouses.

Notably, nobody would be forced to live in apartments or dense neighborhoods. It's simply that towns would no longer be allowed to forbid their construction in places where builders feel there is demand for them.

Why states must act

In the United States, land use policy has traditionally been a local matter. That worked well enough for a time, but in recent decades it's contributed to an intense housing affordability crisis in the Northeast and in coastal California that's grown to a point where it's crippling the national economy.

The basic problem is the construction that happens in your immediate neighborhood is simply not enough, on its own, to meaningfully impact housing affordability or economic growth across a metropolitan area. But it is enough to meaningfully impact your daily life — perhaps parking will get scarcer, or there will be more noise, or there will just be change in a neighborhood that you like fine the way it is.

In poor areas, the prospect of higher tax revenue from new development may be enough to get things approved (though new construction often raises the specter of gentrification). But in affluent areas the incentive is for local politicians to respond to their most risk-averse and small-c conservative constituents by blocking change. And affluent areas are generally where demand for housing is the greatest.

For state government, the incentives are different. A little bit more building in every single town that makes up the Greater Boston area could drastically alter the Massachusetts economy, significantly boosting the Bay State's population, business potential, and tax base. The impact is big enough that, conceivably, major stakeholders — like businesses that want to attract and retain talent and public sector labor unions that want to avoid pension cuts — can be brought on board to join a pro-growth coalition.

Ontario, Washington, and Oregon are doing it right

There's no magic bullet for land use policy, but shifting the level at which decisions get made is the closest we get. In the Seattle area, there seems to have been enough recent construction to halt price increases. The difference is most likely that the Washington state government plays an unusually large role in land use planning by American standards, something it has in common with Oregon and the Canadian province of Ontario, both of which are demonstrating much faster housing stock growth than you see in California or the northeastern United States.

One thing these two American states have in common is that they are fairly dominated by a single large metro area — centered on Seattle and Portland, respectively — that doesn't spill across state lines in a substantial way.

Massachusetts, conveniently, has the exact same attributes. Almost all of Boston's suburban population lives in the state, and the metro Boston area is by far the most important urban region in the state.

If Massachusetts can adopt the Washington state model, that will be not only a major win for housing affordability and urban growth but also an example for other East Coast states to at least consider emulating.

220 years of population shifts in one map