Wednesday, July 17, 2024

State Rep. Mike Connolly is introducing a social housing bill to the Legislature. State Sen. Pat Jehlen, right, with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2022, is a fellow petitioner. (Photo: Campaign to Re-elect Pat Jehlen via Facebook)

The housing crisis could be eased by an approach to construction called social housing, state Rep. Mike Connolly said Thursday at an information session about a bill bringing the idea to Massachusetts.

Connolly, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville, said Tuesday that he and colleagues including state Sen. Pat Jehlen of Somerville backed An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Social Housing Program. If passed, the bill – introduced and referred to committee May 25, according to an online legislative history – would fund the state’s first social housing program, which could help Massachusetts build the additional 200,000 housing units it will need by 2030.

“I, frankly, wonder if there’s any way we could ever get to that goal of 200,000 without social housing,” Connolly said.

Social housing is state-financed, mixed-income housing owned by local and regional agencies. Because it includes lower-, middle- and higher-income occupants, it differs from traditional public housing, which usually serves only lower-income people.

“What’s so powerful about that is it combines some of the social benefits of public housing and public ownership with some of the cash-flow advantages of your typical market-rate development. That allows it to avoid the challenges that doomed so many of our public housing programs over the years,” Connolly said.

Though social housing is relatively new in Massachusetts, other states have had social housing for years. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, social housing will soon account for 20 percent of the county’s housing production, according to information made available by Connolly on Thursday. California and Rhode Island are also exploring social housing as an option to combat housing crises.

“I have a lot of hope that this concept will take off here as it has in Maryland and in Rhode Island,” Connolly said.

Revolving fund

The act, if passed, would authorize the state treasurer to issue $100 million in taxable bonds to MassHousing or another agency. It would also establish the Social Housing Production Revolving Loan Fund to lend money to local and regional housing authorities for projects.

“The money goes out the door, but then over time, in future years, the local housing authority remits portions of the rent back,” Connolly said. “That’s part of what makes it so powerful. The money doesn’t flow one way. Instead, it becomes a big circle of investment in the public interest.”

As local and regional housing authorities began building, units would complement rather than replace existing production.

“The idea here is to establish an entirely new mode of housing production to run in parallel with the free market, with our conventional affordable-housing production, with other kinds of institutionally backed housing production,” Connolly said. “This can really complement our current modes of production.”

Lack of vision

Opponents of the idea have so far seized on its expense and expressed a lack of trust in government protects based on past public housing. “The government doesn’t do anything well,” Steven Greenhut said June 2 in the libertarian publication Reason. “The same governments that let dam spillways collapse and freeways become pockmarked with potholes will fail to maintain these new ‘social housing’ projects.”

During his Housing for All Legislative Table on Thursday, Connolly said that the housing crisis has lingered partly because the state lacks a universal vision for a solution – there is no plan analogous to the Green New Deal in environmental policy or to Medicare For All in health care policy, he explained.

“The failure to actually articulate a comprehensive vision and program that would solve the problem is something that holds us back,” he said. “We could have called this a Green New Deal for housing, because this is something intended to be pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-equity – and all of that becomes possible because we are acting like real estate developers, but we aren’t having to fulfill the need to make investors more wealthy.”

The Massachusetts General Court’s Joint Committee on Housing hosts a public hearing for the bill at 10 a.m. Monday. One can attend in-person or virtually.