As the COVID-19 pandemic tore through the commonwealth last year, it cut an especially deadly path through overcrowded apartment buildings in Chelsea, a largely working-class, immigrant community where many residents are packed into dilapidated rental housing. Rarely have the consequences of the state’s housing shortage been so vivid — or so deadly. For years, residents of wealthy communities across the state set the stage for the crisis, blocking housing construction almost as second nature. But the people who deliver their groceries, mow their lawns, and clean their offices still needed places to live.
Now Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed spending a large portion of the state’s federal COVID-19 rescue money on housing programs targeted at state residents like those in Chelsea, who suffered the most in no small part because of the Commonwealth’s chronic inability to solve its housing crisis. It would help those residents, and low-income people across the Commonwealth, into affordable housing. It’s not just a smart proposal from the governor — it’s a just one, coming out of the pandemic that affected those residents so much more, and the Legislature should get on board.
The plan, though, is caught up in a tug of war of sorts on Beacon Hill over how to spend the federal largesse. Baker had scarcely announced his list of priorities when the Legislature stepped in to declare that they would be the ones allocating the money. That may have looked a little high-handed, but lawmakers should certainly have a prominent role, given that that’s how the budgeting process works when the money at issue is Bay State tax dollars and not federal funds. That said, Baker’s call to spend more on affordable housing is well thought out and impactful. That alone should recommend his ideas to lawmakers.
And perhaps it will. In statements to The Boston Globe’s editorial board, both House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka at least paid lip service to the notion that housing would be high on the list of priorities for the pandemic-program dollars.
Almost $5 billion — $4.89 billion — is up for allocation here. Baker is asking lawmakers to devote $2.9 billion, immediately, to help boost housing ownership in communities of color, add to drug-treatment services, improve job-training initiatives, and upgrade or develop water, sewer, and port infrastructure.
The Legislature doesn’t have its spending plans yet. Legislative leaders plan hearings and then a process to develop those priorities.
There are already ideas and suggestions aplenty. Caregiving services are a big priority for Senate President Spilka. Some labor and health care leaders want a bonus program for hospital, nursing home, and health-center workers. A new health equity task force has just released a report with a smorgasbord of recommendations for strengthening the state’s public health system.
For his part, Baker wants to put $1 billion toward affordable housing and housing ownership, much of which would go to communities that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Specifically, he proposes spending $300 million to support first-time homebuyers; $200 million for affordable housing, built through the MassHousing’s Commonwealth Builder Program; $200 million to produce affordable rental units; and $300 million for more senior citizens and veterans housing.
The state currently helps produce, on average, 2,200 to 2,500 units of affordable housing each year. As a rough estimate, the new spending Baker is calling for would lead to more than 7,500 new affordable housing units, either for rent or sale.
That investment could easily go higher. In a state where affordable housing is a major problem, this would be an important investment, and one whose benefits would be spread across communities throughout the state. Indeed, it’s hard to think of something more important that can be done without somehow building one-time spending into the base of the budget.
Asked about Baker’s proposal, Senate President Spilka was noncommittal, saying in a statement that she anticipated “housing being one of the many issues raised during this inclusive process.”
In a statement of his own, House Speaker Mariano seemed somewhat more positive, saying that “there is no doubt that affordable housing is a priority for the Legislature, and it will be considered as we carry out the appropriation process.”
There’s never a shortage of places to spend extra money, but housing certainly should be a priority. The governor is right to recommend it — and the Legislature would do well to commit a healthy share of the federal funds to that worthy cause.
— The Boston Globe