Massachusetts’ Hypocrisy On Homelessness

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Contractors work on the top of One Dalton Street, 742 feet above Huntington Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Contractors work on the top of One Dalton Street, 742 feet above Huntington Ave. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In our data-crazed society, here's a depressing statistical fact: Homelessness in the nation's priciest cities is surging. Even more depressing, the problem is metastasizing not only among the usual suspects, that is, red states that are hostile to social programs. Progressives in blue states, too, have pledged allegiance to a NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) that is blocking progress.

The number of homeless people in Massachusetts (most of whom are sheltered, as required by state law) leapt 14% last year. Headlines on the West Coast, meanwhile, scream of a housing "crisis" in California, with homelessness up 16% in Los Angeles last year and up 17% over the last two years in San Francisco. The political liability of the crisis is widely considered to have forced Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti out of a prospective presidential bid.

California lawmakers considered an obvious palliative that Minneapolis embraced — eliminating single-family-housing-only zones in dense areas with mass transit, thereby allowing more apartment construction. (Minneapolis' action did away with a policy initiated there, and elsewhere, to zone out black families who couldn't afford big homes on big lots that met big parking requirements.) But California's legislature killed a proposed version of a similar plan, bowing to critics like the LA city councilor who ominously warned that it would “destroy single-family home neighborhoods in the state.”

Homeless men line up to get blankets for their overnight stay at the Southampton Homeless Shelter. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Homeless men line up to get blankets for their overnight stay at the Southampton Homeless Shelter. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

We're no more enlightened in Massachusetts, where most communities either erect hurdles to multi-family housing or don’t allow it at all. Ten municipalities in Massachusetts accounted for two-thirds of the apartments and condominiums built here in the last decade. (For the record, I live in a condo in a two-unit building.)

The math of loading the scales in favor of single-family homes is inexorable. Our housing prices make people from other parts of the country gasp, and those prices, in turn, help to explain why the state's homeless population swelled by about 2,500 people last year, the largest increase among the states. Overall, more than 20,000 Bay State residents resided here without a home, according to federal statistics.

A chilling undertone of social Darwinism polluted some of the rhetoric against California’s defeated plan. “There is not necessarily a shortage of housing but an excess of people,” according to one Los Angeles Times letter-writer, echoing Scrooge’s gripe about the surplus population. “Just because you want to live somewhere doesn’t mean you can, hence the escalating cost of housing in a particular area.”

We're no more enlightened in Massachusetts, where most communities either erect hurdles to multi-family housing or don’t allow it at all.

I’d agree if he were talking about keeping people out of, say, a floodplain. But in a city where human beings are being forced like feral cats onto the streets by runaway housing costs, this attitude undergirds a more widespread, institutionalized discrimination against rental housing. Beyond NIMBY zoning restrictions on the local level, the federal tax code doles out about $77 billion annually to homeowners by letting them deduct their mortgage interest from their taxable income. The mortgage interest deduction increases with the value of the mortgage, a regressive handout to the affluent who purchase big homes.

Against this formidable wave of obstacles, efforts like LA's bond vote three years ago to build affordable housing, and last year's infusion of almost $2 billion into low- and moderate-priced housing in Massachusetts, become exercises in backstroking upstream.

A study by Zillow and Boston University (where I’m employed) found homelessness revving up especially in expensive housing markets, where renters must shell out more than a third of their income for shelter. With rising rents outrunning rising incomes, the poorest citizens are especially vulnerable to losing their homes, the study said.

The solution, experts advise, is a one-two, supply-demand punch: Address the short supply of affordable housing by building more and ratchet down demand by making sure people who have homes currently are able to keep them, via measures like tenants’ rights protections in eviction proceedings. (Until we decide to test the intriguing idea of a basic income for the poor, existing housing subsidies can also be increased.)

Beds in the men's ward at the Pine Street Inn in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Beds in the men's ward at the Pine Street Inn in Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Meanwhile, presidential candidates have started to weigh in. Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan for everything but the heartbreak of psoriasis, would spend half a trillion dollars to build affordable housing (fully paid for by increasing the estate tax) and also — bless her — would pay communities that rolled back restrictive zoning.

Kamala Harris would give tax credits to help renters making less than $100,000 and who spend 30% of their incomes or more on rent. Cory Booker proposes a similar plan.

One hundred and fifteen years ago, muckraker Lincoln Steffens published his expose of municipal corruption, “The Shame of the Cities.” Today, NIMBYs on the right and left have earned Steffens’ title for their inversion of moral priorities in privileging middle class housing zones over those who can’t afford a home. We can quibble with the Warren, Harris and Booker plans, but at least these progressives aren’t engaging in the sort of hypocrisy called out by left-leaning New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo:

What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism. Preserving ‘local character,’ maintaining ‘local control,’ keeping housing scarce and inaccessible — the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.

It would be comforting to think such condemnations would haunt the conscience of those who consider themselves compassionate caretakers of society's less fortunate. Comforting, and unrealistic, since we wouldn't be having this discussion if NIMBYs were truly compassionate.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary said Boston's homeless population, not Massachusetts', increased 14% last year. We regret the error.