A new, multimillion-dollar initiative from three major city hospitals that sees affordable housing and eviction as public health issues has the potential to radically change Massachusetts’ housing conversation for the better. The commercial housing industry should get involved to make sure it has a seat at the table.
Boston Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Boston Children’s Hospital plan to invest nearly $3 million over three years into housing stability through the Innovative Stable Housing Initiative (ISHI). For now, it’s a pilot project aimed at Greater Boston’s most vulnerable populations, but the hospitals are open about having broader ambitions.
“We’re trying to contribute in interesting ways to prevent eviction, to prevent displacement, to create more affordable housing,” BMC housing and health researcher Dr. Megan Sandel told Banker & Tradesman.
BMC hopes to release a more specific vision statement that details its housing policy change goals later this fall, Sandel said. The three hospitals are partnering with community groups not known for being cozy with landlords, like the Center for Economic Democracy, Boston Ujima Project and Right to the City.
“We have people who are medically fragile, homeless who are very high utilizers of health care system. In our Medicaid population, of our top 2 percent of patient cost people, 40 percent are homeless or housing unstable,” she added. “That being said, we also recognize it’s important to have stable housing as a child when you’re learning and growing. It helps you stay in school, it helps your parents stay in work and keeps you happy and healthy.”
Phrases like “prevent eviction” and “prevent displacement” tend to make members of the commercial housing industry see red. For the more ideologically inclined, they suggest government intrusions into their property rights and a mostly-functioning market. For the more practically-minded, they threaten to constrain business decisions or add an additional layer of complexity to their planning.
However, members of the commercial housing industry must recognize that the state’s 30-year-old free market housing policy consensus is breaking down in the face of an unprecedented affordability crisis.
NIMBY restrictions across the state, a booming economy, high construction costs and pricey land have pushed housing prices above what many feel are reasonable and done so much more quickly than buyers and renters – or their wages – can adapt. In addition, much of the electorate equates the housing industry with the predominantly high-end product being built in Greater Boston today. The market is not working for enough people, and few have confidence it will work for them any time soon.
Against this backdrop, the decision by three prominent and respected institutions, and their clear desire to work with and not against the housing industry represents the best chance to implement meaningful change across the region. A similar coalition was able to push through radical, pro-construction zoning reform in Oregon earlier this year, at the price of a 7 percent cap in yearly rent increases.
“I think this is a story of ‘we.’ We all benefit when neighborhoods are stable and people are able to put down roots,” BMC’s Sandel said. “We are working with the housing sector in this space because we need a balanced approach.”