Stability and stagnation in MA

I was thinking about this since my last MBTA screed. Joan Vennochi beats me to the punch, using the poll showing Baker’s, uh, formidable popularity as a jumping-off point to show the underside of inequality:

Does Massachusetts live up to the hype? – The Boston Globe.

Not for people stuck on the wrong side of the income gap, who are desperate for affordable housing and not in the market for a $4 million condo unit in a revitalized Downtown Crossing. Not for the homeless, whose numbers have nearly doubled over the past nine years, according to a recent study commissioned by the Boston Foundation. Not for kids stuck in schools hindered by an outdated school funding formula. And not for those rail commuters who just experienced three miserable days of delays attributed to defective new locomotives.

Massachusetts honks are justified. We are #1 in education; #1 in being health-insured; we have a strong economy and low unemployment. We also have a hellacious inequality gap, one which is gnawing at the quality of life for those not in a position to benefit from industries that require the extremely-well-trained. Personally I don’t wish to live in the East Coast version of a gilded, class-bifurcated Silicon Valley.

Neither the successes nor the challenges are really about Baker at all. These are the result of factors that pre-date Baker by decades, if not centuries. Actions taken or not taken by him and the legislature will also be felt in the generational terms.

Baker re-re-invented himself between 2010 (angry!) and 2014 (sober bean-counting manager). He was basically content to inherit a post-Deval Patrick political consensus: Play to our strengths in tech, health care and education; don’t do anything too crazy on taxes, up or down; manage the bureaucracies. This comports perfectly well with a House leadership that, if anything, is even more small-c conservative than he is.

But we have a political culture that has no interest in taking on the long-term, structural problems that put together, squeeze the comfort out of life for many. We are failing to adapt. There are no plans, no ambitions, no signature legislated efforts to address:

  • The cost of housing. It is an increasingly crushing burden for the non-wealthy; but even if you’ve been a homeowner and seen your asset increase in value, how can your young adult kids afford their own places? This has been festering at least since the tech boom of the late 90s got laundered into real estate assets. We have needed a regional (Greater Boston) plan to create non-luxury housing in quantity, and have never gotten action, or even a clear vision from legislature nor governor.
  • The decay of the MBTA. A related economic justice issue. A reliable T is cheaper (and cleaner) than a car, providing a little economic cushion for the non-rich. And when it’s not reliable, one’s hold on a job is precarious. The Baker administration’s efforts on the T are technical, not adaptive: Save a few bucks here and there, but then what are you left with?
  • The cost of health care. I actually have to give some credit to Baker — and take away from the House — for proposing price growth caps to address the confiscatory pricing of Partners et al.  ”Health insurance” for nearly everyone doesn’t obviate rising costs, which cut into household budgets and employers’ ability to hire or raise wages. Speaker DeLeo ensured once again that we failed to act firmly.
  • Cost of higher education. Public higher education has always seemed an afterthought in Massachusetts political culture. We see the same administrative featherbedding and high salaries in the UMass system as in the higher ed system at large. And now UMass Boston — which should be a gateway to the middle class — is $30 million in the hole, cancelling classes. Wrong direction.

These are big-picture problems that require Vision, or Progress – which is really just adaptation. Our Governor and legislature seem content to live off the achievements of those who designed and invested in our current comforts and (relative, contingent) successes.  Our successes are not equally shared, and create their own set of problems. Assets are prone to decay, and in some cases (the T, our real estate market) they are already at a breaking point. The time frame of public investment and planning is generational, not the next election.

We are not asking for miracles. We are asking for long-term planning.


31 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Progressive ideals and high costs

    I think that regulations in housing (such as sprinklers etc) add 200% to the costs, and result in shabby wood frame apartment buildings that are still very expensive.

    Likewise, healthcare regulations make our insurance several times as expensive as that in less regulated states. I think this is one reason Hillary lost states that saw massive increases in health ins premiums due to federal regulation.

    Most of these things I agree are desirable but we have demanded that buyers spend money on them without taking steps to increase income (and minimum wage won’t do it).

    • If you're going to use numbers, use the right ones.

      I think that regulations in housing (such as sprinklers etc) add 200% to the costs

      And I think that 14 unicorns inhabit the Boston Common, frolicking happily where your eyes don’t go. See how I too can use specific numbers based on no actual facts to buttress my inexpert opinion?

      • From a building I tried to redevelop

        I tried to redevelop a building and simply getting a mortgage demanded putting in features that amounted to applying for a loan for 300% of the purchase price.

        So I have experience. You could also look at the recent example of Somerville s housing stock of which 22 properties would actually be up to code if built today.

        what is it with this website that you’ve all gone off on the angle-shot insults? I go away for a few years and I come back, everybody’s a bad John Stewart.

        • Those must be some gold-plated sprinklers!

          Seriously, how does adding a sprinkler system TRIPLE the price of a dwelling?

          • dwellings

            Seriously, how does adding a sprinkler system TRIPLE the price of a dwelling?

            IIRC, the fire-sprinkler law is local-ordinance optional for multi-unit buildings (more than four apartments) and so the cost would be for the entire building…

            Though I find the 200% – 300% number somewhat suspect as a general guideline, still I can imagine some apartment buildings built long ago would incur significant costs under the necessity of a renovation requiring a new sprinkler system. I would still consider it a good investment since the buildings owner will get a break on insurance, get a safer space as well as not ever have to see his/her entire investment go up in smoke.

            • Elevators etc

              Not just sprinklers. Elevators, stairways reconfigured, more rentable space lost, electrical etc. And this is a building in use daily now.

              I didn’t say it was wrong to have it or require it.

              But like health insurance, which I would like everybody to have, we just legislated the outcome without making sure that workers could afford it.

              • So then why not

                take health insurance away from the private markets and make it public, if you are concerned with lowering costs and improving outcomes?

        • That's a giant pivot

          Statement 1:

          Regulations in housing add 200% to the costs.

          Statement 2:

          Getting a mortgage to redevelop a building demanded putting in features that amounted to applying for a loan for 300% of the purchase price.

          Those two statements are worlds apart. Retrofit and renovation cost structures are very different from out-of-ground basebuilding construction.

          I mean really, are you arguing against requiring developers to employ modern standards for safe wiring, plumbing, fire safety and egress, and so forth? Which standard are you arguing we shouldn’t employ?

        • And...

          I tried to redevelop a building and simply getting a mortgage demanded putting in features that amounted to applying for a loan for 300% of the purchase price.

          … maybe the cost of renovation wasn’t artificially high, but the purchase price was artificially low??

          A lot of multi-family homes and other ‘apartment’ buildings went up really quickly in the post-war years and the opportunities for corner-cutting, in the context of much cruder building codes, were plentiful.

          Even if a building was entirely up to the existing code at construction, the addition of something like a fire fighting sprinkler system, which would certainly increase your plumbing budget by about 200%, since you have to add entirely separate systems, into a building that wasn’t conceived to ever hold more than one plumbing system, is gonna cost you.

          Sometimes, it’s actually cheaper to raze the building and start over.

  2. We are asking for long-term planning

    So, basically, a miracle.

  3. Maybe I have not had enough coffee yet this morning

    but I can’t think of a single BIG idea (never mind a GOOD one) out of the Legislature since casinos in 2011.

    Can that be right?

  4. Update on zoning reform legislation

    Charlie’s post is a great time for an update on the zoning reform/housing bill passed by the Senate last year, which expired with no action in the House. We (the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and our broad coalition) have started anew this term, framing it as the “Great Neighborhoods” campaign. The name sends a message—we are asking for reform of the state’s zoning, planning and subdivision laws but the goal is to create and preserve the kind of neighborhoods that people want to live in. That includes more housing choices, healthy and walkable places, vibrant city and town centers with thriving local businesses, and protecting open space and natural resources. While Senator Chandler refiled what the Senate passed (S 81), Reps. Kulik and Peake filed a distinct House version (H 2420). That House version is likely coming up for hearing in early May. It has strong housing production measures, including multifamily housing, accessory apartment and cluster zoning requirements, and anti-discrimination language. It also has a new element, promoting artist live/work spaces. We hope to engage grassroots activists in the Great Neighborhoods campaign; if you are interested, please email me at

    • Would love to hear more --

      Feel free to write a post giving more details. Would be very interested to read.

    • Would also like to see...

      …the beginning of inclusion of ADA requirements, and enforcement too now that we have had 25 years to think about it. HINT – the ADA is more than ramps, and metal braille buttons at drive up ATM’s which are stupid in and of themselves, but even more useless in thathe the vast majority of the blind and visually impaired never learn Braille.

      Loop technology for the deaf and hard of hearing, contrast and corduroy markers for the vision impaired, routine use of large print in public spaces..

      don’t get me started…

  5. Off hesterprynne

    The Massachusetts elite has done a good job of presenting many problems as “solved”. And yes, we’re good on a national level at public education and medicine, though that’s often despite rather than thanks to our legal regime. This is done by largely ignoring the destitute or disadvantaged: the Globe will publish several articles about rich people and their problems for every Vennochi columns like this. Gateway cities, a term of art meaning cities that aren’t without a ten minute drive of Boston, are largely ignored in elite conversation.

    With everything solved there is no need to contemplate electing someone else, shifting our economic regime, or questioning corporate tax breaks. Efforts to do so, such as the effort for a fair income tax regime, are stifled in the press. Laws that could threaten the status quo get buried in committee. And we drift quietly and comfortably into mediocrity.

    sabutai   @   Sat 15 Apr 4:22 PM
    • Losing that sense of shared sacrifice

      Just as a microcosm of the state, my hometown of Cambridge is a great case in political stagnation. The complex system of PR and non-partisan/non-technical city management has lead to a political paralysis at confronting the real problems facing the city. The City Manager keeps making small improvements here and there and uses the vast financial resources wisely (200k public toilets and 20k imported rocks for public art notwithstanding) and the council generally defers to his judgment on those issues and occupies itself with neighborhood level issues like leadblower bans, bike lanes, and symbolic stuff like impeaching Donald Trump.

      Meanwhile in that same 30 year period the middle and working class has been entirely hallowed out, the elementary schools are becoming less diverse as the city becomes more affluent and new members opt for private options, and the city is rapidly becoming one of immigrants and people of color living in subsidized housing and affluent whites from somewhere else living in astronomically inflated private housing. Yet the PR system keeps the same neighborhoods in charge that benefit from the status quo and fear more development on the one hand while the more development oriented councilors aren’t really tackling the question of affordability.

      The state is like that writ large with Baker as a state manager-not raising taxes and keeping the fiscal climate stable but not making long term investments on climate, housing, and real education equity that would really improve the state. Walsh is a similar leader following in Meninos footsteps. And most legislators are as well. They aren’t even bad people necessary-DeLeo certainly seems like an unusually self interested outlier. But most think we have an enviable combination of social tolerance, good universities and good industries that all propel one another in this virtuoso cycle of socially inclusive capitalism. And the Bay Area is awfully similar in this respect.

      And I see that social frabic fraying and maybe even crashing as the middle class hallows our, central and western ma are further isolated and drug addled, and the immigrant and communities of color lack access to our vaunted social mobility pipeline and are stuck in low quality or state subsidized housing and a low mobility existence.

      Zoning reform and criminal justice reform would singlehandedly transform the racial, political, and socioeconomic climate of the state. But are the Concords ready for the high density housing that needs to be forced on them? And the influx of immigrants and people of color who will need them? I’m not sure. Having 352 municipalities doesn’t help in this regard and it makes it easier for us to paper over these inequalities with band aids like METCO, section 8and community colleges that still only widen the pipeline by inches and not the miles needed.

      • Did nopolitician write your last paragraph?

        I really don’t think it is necessary or desirable to force communities that like their space into high density zones. I would prefer statewide rather than local taxes so that everyone is taken care of. Plus, aren’t all communities required to have some affordable housing already?

        • Good questions to raise

          All good questions to raise. The “Great Neighborhoods” legislation is not aimed specifically at affordable housing, but at the general problem that we are not producing the types of housing that most people want/need. That results in choices not being available—whether it is accessory apartments for seniors or their millennial kids, apartments for downsizing seniors in the suburbs, homes with three bedrooms for families, or rental apartments that are affordable (not deed-restricted “affordable housing,” but something at a reasonable rent). The Senate and House versions offer two approaches in promoting multifamily housing. The Senate version (what it passed last year) requires each community to have a multifamily zoning district “of reasonable size” in a smart growth location and at a density of 14 units/acre, with 8 units/acre for rural communities and waivers available. The House version requires each community to provide “reasonable and realistic opportunities” for multifamily housing in smart growth locations, with no specific density required. In both cases, multifamily is defined as three units or more. And both bills promote cluster zoning (homes with smaller lots and land preserved for open space) and try to reduce sprawl, so that communities that want to protect open space and critical natural resources can do that too.

          • Why isn't the market taking care of this?

            If there are so many who want/need this type of housing, would not such be built, or is it entirely that zoning does not allow for it? Also, we should come up with a way to make single-family units with yards affordable too, IMO.

            • Zoning restrictions limit market

              Zoning restricts what you can build and where. For example, many communities do not allow multifamily housing. Others may require special permits for multifamily while single family can be built “as of right,” or require minimum parcel sizes, densities or other restrictions that make multifamily hard to build. I don’t agree with all the conclusions, but this study from Professor Ed Glaeser has often been cited on the effect of local land use regulations in Greater Boston. The 2009 study here notes that in the last 25 years Greater Boston has seen a “remarkable increase” in housing prices, a decline in the number of new units and no significant increase in density (a combination you would not expect in a free market). Rental rates fell slightly for about a year during the Great Recession but have been rising steadily since then. We agree that affordable single family units with yards are also important, and supported legislation passed last year to promote such “starter homes” in smart growth locations.

        • less dense

          Some parts of the state don’t have designated area where we keep our poor. In our small town you can be poor wherever you want.

          I would love to see liberals force some high density housing on towns like Concord and Sudbury. Won’t happen but the fireworks would be interesting to watch.

  6. Not an "affordable housing" problem.

    It is not accurate to think in terms that Massachusetts has an “affordable housing” problem because this drives the wrong solutions. Another way to look at this is that our economic growth is too concentrated and this skews our housing markets.

    As Christopher says, what about “affordable single family units with yards”? That simply isn’t compatible with stacking the bulk of the state’s economy into Boston. Sure, public transportation can take some of the edge off, but there is no realistic scenario where a 2 million people enter Boston every day and then leave every night for their single-family house with a yard 20 minutes outside the city. If you want the majority of the state’s economy to be in Boston, then people working there will either need 60 to 90 minute commutes (like they do in NYC) or will need to start liking living in a condo in a highrise. Or they will need to pay a million or so for a single-family house with a yard like they do in Toronto.

    Meanwhile, in Gateway cities, existing housing is rotting out because it is too expensive to repair in relation to its value. Why? Because the wealthy areas – starting with Boston and its immediate suburbs – set the contractor’s market, and, to be honest, state regulations have driven up the cost of doing renovations. I’m not saying those regulations aren’t important, but they are written with the Boston real estate market in mind. Adding sprinklers to an apartment building makes perfect sense – but when that 8-unit apartment building is worth $250k and the sprinkler retrofit is going to cost $100k, and the place needs another $100k in renovations to boot, and you can only get $900/month rent for each unit, then it just doesn’t add up. Do you know what the sprinkler law does in Springfield? It is triggered only when a certain threshold of renovation is performed, so landlords just don’t renovate. It’s that simple.

    Lead paint laws – which are very sensible because lead poisoning is a very serious thing – have added to the cost of nearly any work on an older home. While this might be OK if your triple-decker is worth $1.7m in Brookline, when that same property is worth $100k in Springfield, that’s a huge burden to put on its owner.

    I mean, seriously – can someone tell me why it is not outrageous that the triple-decker in Springfield is worth just $100k when a similar property is worth $1.7m in Brookline? Can’t you see that this low value is a major problem for any community because it can bring in a maximum of $2,500 in property taxes? Can you explain to me why this is seen as a failure on the part of Brookline to have “affordable housing”, but is also a failure on the part of Springfield for actually having affordable housing?

    • To pick nits

      The Brookline property is selling for $1.8M, but it’s being taxed at closer to $1.1M. And it’s got 10 bedrooms, whereas the Springfield one has 6.

      But yes, point taken on both (a) massive disparity, and what I hadn’t yet thought about, (b) the contractor market prices being driven by the Boston Metro real estate market.

      That said, there are no sprinkler requirements for 3 deckers, and furthermore, a 2016 SJC ruling allows many builders to get out of sprinklers for bigger buildings. So yeah, point taken again, but my point is that these things are a bit squishier. The question then becomes: do we either build our economy differently to go to where the already-built housing is, or do we rebuild our housing to go to where the jobs are? The former seems more efficient, but far harder to do without “command and control”…

    • I certainly don't assume...

      …that all significant economic activity has to be in Boston.

    • Some questions

      Is the value of people maimed and killed in dwelling fires that could have been knocked down by sprinklers lower in Springfield than in Boston? Is the value of the possessions lost in those fires lower?

      Are men and women whose lives are ruined by the lead point they ingested as toddlers in Springfield less valuable than their counterparts in Boston? You write “lead paint poisoning is a very serious thing” — and proceed to utterly dismiss regulations preventing it for the part of the state you are ostensibly working to improve.

      In my view, there are different arguments to be made that are more compelling and that don’t require throwing people — especially poor people — under the economic bus.

      Massachusetts as whole — and western MA in particular — will benefit greatly if people can choose to live in affordable single-family homes with yards that are within an easy walking distance of their jobs or of public transportation that gets them to their jobs. That is only possible by locating those jobs outside the I-495 loop, by decreasing funding and tax incentives for automobile-centric transportation, and by increasing funding and tax incentives for pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly transportation. This is especially true in western MA.

      But please — seriously — a wood-frame eight-unit apartment building without sprinklers is a death-trap WHEREVER it is located.

      Whatever policies we adopt MUST result in making safe and affordable housing available to every Massachusetts resident.

      • I did not mean to suggest that poor people should be exempt from safety regulations, however it is a very real fact that housing is being left abandoned or unrenovated because of the high cost to fulfill various regulations such as sprinklers or lead paint.

        A different approach would be a realization that these regulations have the effect of increasing the cost of housing, so perhaps some broad subsidies to fix the problems are in order.

  7. Worth reading Richard Floridas remarks

    He really has owned up to the downsides of the creative class gentrifying model he once espoused. It’s irreversible and largely beneficial for the regions in the long run-Pittsburgh isn’t Youngstown for a reason. But we are now seeing back and brown flight-minorities priced out of cities and into suburbs like Ferguson, Hazel Crest where my in laws preach, or closer to home places like Dedham, Brockton and Randolph. And the Rob Ford effect where downscale white voters are becoming more regressively anti-city.

    Here’s the transcript the incomparable Gabrielle Gurley assembled at the Prospect. She’s got a lot of insights into Boston urban planning on her twitter too. And Florida gave these remarks in Cambridge at the underrated think tank the Lincoln Land Institute.

    • Fascinating

      … And Florida sounds as bewildered as any of us. I do think, as everyone in the center and left does, that inequality is the linchpin — and it’s been intentionally, explicitly, ideologically engineered! IOW, it ought to be fixable.

  8. Some numbers - all from US Census web site

    I have read all of your concerns, and they are urban and professional class in nature.
    Housing – The cost of housing is indeed a product of zoning laws, and some of them are enviornmental/watershed based as being a ‘public’ good. That should be addressed by new technology, but it is not. For example, why are composting and electric toilets still not permitted by plumbing zoning codes?

    MBTA – The mean commuting time remains at 29 minutes. I know that 10 minutes of waiting for a train seems like hours, but this is not a concern to most people in the state.

    Health INSURANCE – Health CARE is not in crisis, but how to pay for it is.

    Lastly, Cost of Higher Education – IS this a concern for most of the Commonwealth? I looked up population numbers. From 2010 to 2015, the population of children 0 – 5 went from 5.6% to 5.4%. Population of persons under age 18 went from 21.7% to 21.4%. Both are fairly small, if negative, differences. But during that same time period, the population of 65 and over went from 13.8% to 15.4% – an increase larger than the growth of both youth demographics. Setting aside philosophical worth, what is the concern of this increasing demographic for lower cost higher ed? They are the victims of lower interest rates, making their savings worth less, and greater statistical poverty with less possibility for remedying it and they are equally impactd by housing and other cost of living issues, likely with less mobility.

    And a final census note – the demographic of White Alone went from 80.4% to 82.1% during that same time period as well, possibly reflecting the younger and more diverse demographic being able to leave to start families and careers in lower cost of living states, leaving elderly white residents marooned.

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