Our Opinion: Affordable housing issue can't wait

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Access to adequate and affordable housing is as important as education, transportation and the presence of a skilled workforce when it comes to generating and maintaining a robust economy. It is difficult, if not impossible, to attract job-creating businesses to an area where affordable housing is scarce, not only because it makes attracting workers from elsewhere a heavier lift, but also because the lack of it drives up the rental and purchase cost of existing housing stock. Aside from the practical argument, there is a moral obligation by society to ensure that those at the lower end of the income scale do not go homeless.

Massachusetts, being one of the nation's more progressive states, has done a better job than the national average of providing for its low-income residents. Nevertheless, the Bay State's housing deficit means that currently, there is less than one affordable unit for every two low-income families, creating an overall state shortage of 160,000 units, according to two recent reports cited by the State House News Service. More than half of poorer residents lucky enough to have dwellings find that they must pay more than 50 percent of their income to provide a roof over their heads, leaving less for other necessities like food, transportation, health care, heat and child care.

The Legislature has grasped the seriousness of this problem and understands that affordable housing — both the existence and lack of it — has ramifications all the way down the line. Teachers, firefighters, police and other publicly employed personnel should have access to affordable housing in the towns where they work — a topic of pressing importance even in the Berkshires, where workers in towns like Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Lenox often find real estate prices and rents to be out of reach of their relatively modest salaries.

The Legislature also has a checkered track record when it comes to completing the lawmaking process in a timely fashion, so advocates for affordable housing are pressing for quick action. Part of the rush is due to the onset of Town Meeting season, when housing projects tend to be approved by local municipalities. A bill Gov. Charlie Baker has submitted seeks to make the landscape more amenable for such projects by lowering a town or city government's approval ratio from a two-thirds to a simple majority, which still leaves locals with some flexibility of choice. MassHousing Executive Director Chrystal Kornegay emphasized the critical nature of this change at a State House hearing on the housing issue last week.

Clearly, it is incumbent on the Legislature to fund more construction of affordable housing, which has actually declined in recent years as demand has increased. Such spending will make it more likely that municipalities will initiate their own programs when they know they stand to get state help. Moreover, the present need for state involvement is even more compelling due to the Trump administration's proposed cuts to public-housing programs in the wake of last year's tax-cutting legislation from Congress.

There is no instant or inexpensive way for the commonwealth to free itself from the housing millstone, but any timely action on that front should have a stimulating effect on a state economy that would then become more capable, through increased revenues produced, to spend more on the problem in the future.

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