Sunday, June 23, 2024

Last May, The New York Times reported that the combined home equity of U.S. homeowners had increased by an unprecedented $6 trillion in just two years. “Most of this money,” the reporters wrote, “has been created by the simple fact that housing, in short supply and high demand across America, has appreciated at record pace during the pandemic.”

Economists predict that this huge gain will not diminish much over time, despite rising interest rates and the eventual end of the pandemic. Decades of inadequate housing construction rates have resulted in a major shortage of supply. In the face of strong unfulfilled demand, this has meant high (and rising) prices.

“High rents and sale prices in major cities are a policy choice, one that puts gates around many of our most wonderful places and taxes the folks lucky enough to live there. And it is unfair to all of us,” Annie Lowrey recently reported in The Atlantic. Our current system of regulating housing has troubling implications for people who rent their homes and for Cambridge’s goal of being a livable, diverse and equitable community.

The Census Bureau reports that the portion of homeowners who are white exceeds the portion who are Black by 30 percentage points. People born before or during the post-World War II baby boom are overrepresented significantly among homeowners.

This didn’t happen accidentally or naturally. It’s an outcome of a century of policies, at all levels, that have tilted the legal and economic playing field in favor of homeowners (disproportionately older, whiter and wealthier) and against renters (disproportionately nonwhite, immigrant and poorer).

The federal government played a role by making possible the long-term fixed-rate home mortgage back in the 1930s, excluding Black veterans from the benefits of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights and encouraging residential segregation across the country through discriminatory standards for financing home mortgages.

States yielded part of their authority to regulate land use to cities and towns, which have set highly restrictive zoning laws while delegating power and responsibility to unelected and unrepresentative boards of residents. Local zoning laws originally enacted to protect homeowners from intrusive physical conditions were adapted to “protect” homeowners from having “undesirable” neighbors, and even from having “too many” neighbors. Local zoning and planning boards have conferred extralegal influence and enormous benefits on homeowners at the expense of others.

The inequitable foundation of our zoning laws and procedures has compounded the damage from the housing shortage by distributing its consequences so unevenly. At a time of sharply rising housing costs, renters (a majority of Cambridge households) face steep annual increases in rent, costly and disruptive moves to less-expensive quarters and a shrinking chance of buying a home. Homeowners – about one-third of Cambridge households – enjoy stable housing, annual increases in wealth and one of the lowest property tax rates in the region.

This system has been in place for so long that some homeowners – unaware of its origins and consequences – seem to consider it part of their natural rights as property owners, an essential form of existential protection. Others defend the status quo, while some prefer slower, more incremental change, but the tide of rising housing costs is eroding that ground rapidly.

The results of our underproduction of housing, both short- and long-term, have become too harmful to put off until later. The housing shortage has been studied and analyzed extensively; policy experts know what needs to be done. Massachusetts, California and other states have begun to chip away at the fortress of zoning laws constructed by privileged suburbs, but denial and resistance indicate that progress may be slow on that front. Cambridge’s RISE pilot program, tenant protection activities and other measures provide more immediate relief from the crisis, but some are limited and temporary, leaving root causes untouched.

“The problem is largely, if not exclusively, the result of the country not permitting enough homes where people want them. Although some communities … have allowed housing construction to keep up with rapid population growth, the superstar metro areas of the Northeast and West Coast have not,” Lowrey reports. “Displacement happens only because building dense housing is illegal in many rich neighborhoods, and because cities build so little of it overall. If you want to build enough to really help low-income people, you’re talking about doing a lot of building.”

Fixing our long-term systemic housing problems doesn’t require abandoning all our zoning laws. We do need to correct their current slant and make our laws more consistent with our goals and our values. (We also need to keep in mind that the Cambridge housing shortage is a part of the regional and national housing shortage.)

Cambridge has begun to move in the right direction, with the 2020 Affordable Housing Overlay, last year’s prioritizing of people over cars and increased funding for affordable housing. Today’s housing crisis has been a long time in the making. It will be difficult to fix it as fast as we should, so Cambridge needs to expand and accelerate its efforts to wind down zoning’s 100-year class war.

James Zall, Pemberton Street


James Zall is a longtime resident and a homeowner.