The Housing Policy We Need: An Interview with Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston

Thomas M. Menino, now serving his third term as mayor of Boston, became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in May and quickly elevated the issue of affordable housing to the top of the organization’s agenda. By the end of May, the nation’s mayors delivered recommendations to HUD Secretary Mel Martinez and Congress. They called for a new national homeownership tax credit to help low- and moderate-income families buy homes, the establishment of a national affordable housing trust fund and employer-assisted housing programs for working families.

In his own city, Mayor Menino announced in October a rent stabilization plan that would allow tenants to appeal rent hikes to a mayor-appointed board. The burden would be on landlords to show that increases in operating expenses are “unavoidable” or that expensive capital improvements are necessary. Rent control laws in Boston (and in Cambridge and Brookline) had come to an end after a statewide referendum in 1994 that critics said interfered with “home rule” by ignoring the rights of cities and towns to find local solutions to local problems (see Shelterforce #80).

Aaron Gornstein, executive director of the Boston-based Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, sat down with Mayor Menino to get his views on national and local housing policy.

Soon after assuming the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, you organized a housing summit, which led to a series of recommendations for changes in national housing policy. What are the most important ones to push for over the next year?

I believe we need a national housing policy that is flexible enough to address the varying needs across the nation, whether it’s production or preservation, homeownership or rental housing. We endorsed a bipartisan package that ranges from Congressman [Bernie] Sander’s housing trust fund legislation to the president’s homeownership tax credit. We also want to see more incentives for employer-assisted housing and mixed-income housing. And the preservation and revitalization of public housing is critical.

In your new role, you have also begun to do quite a bit of lobbying with Congress and the Bush administration on affordable housing issues. What are your observations about their willingness to do something about the housing crisis?

This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue, it’s nationwide and bipartisan. Congress seems more open now than before to thinking about the housing issue, because it’s become so much more than a Northeast and West Coast problem. I’ve been asked to speak in North Carolina on this issue, and I’ve heard from Republican mayors in Georgia and Florida about it. So, clearly, there’s a lot more concern, and they are open to new solutions.

I don’t think housing is on the radar screen of the Bush administration. They talk about homeownership, but I don’t see the commitment to real investment that’s needed to help solve housing problems. We need more of a focus on rental housing. That’s where the needs of the working poor are.

When Secretary Martinez says housing is a local issue, what he’s really saying is, “Don’t expect much help from the federal government.” It’s true that housing happens at the local level, but we need the resources from the federal government to make a difference.

How do you overcome federal resistance to providing more resources for affordable housing? And how can local players – CDCs, small-town mayors and others – influence national policy?

You have to build a wide-ranging coalition to make your case. That’s why we’ve reached out to labor, to business, to seniors via AARP and to public health advocates. We cite rising housing costs, the fact that the National Housing Conference says that we’ll need 11 million new units over the next decade and the growth in homelessness.

Local players should build local coalitions to get their congresspeople to commit to national housing legislation. A number of groups are doing it now, but more is needed.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the “housing lobby” in Washington, DC?

There’s an old rule in politics: “Secure your base.” The housing groups in Washington are the base. They are the ever-vigilant troopers holding the flag. I started meeting with Washington housing groups early this year, and I told them, “We all have to work together,” and they’ve been great. Now, we need more support on housing, so I’ve been talking to the building trades, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, AARP and many others about joining us – and they are interested. We have to build a broader coalition to have more of a political impact.

What’s the best way to “sell” affordable housing locally, and what are the most important messages that housing advocates and providers should be conveying to residents, local elected officials and others?

I approach people from the standpoint that young people who grew up in many neighborhoods can’t afford to live here anymore. I also emphasize to people that diversity is the strength of our community, not a drawback.

Housing is the foundation for making progress in so many other important areas. We can show that housing development creates jobs in the community. And we have to emphasize how better quality housing prevents health problems and how safe and affordable housing goes hand-in-hand with quality education.

Is living wage legislation part of your strategy?

It’s part of it. I’m proud that Boston was able to pass living wage legislation with the support of both the business and labor communities. People in Boston need more money in their pockets if they are going to afford the rents that owners are charging these days.

Two years ago, you put forth an aggressive agenda for building and preserving more affordable housing in Boston. What have been your major housing accomplishments under this plan, and where do you think the city needs to improve?

I think we’ve surpassed our goals in this area, issuing building permits for more than 5,000 new units of housing, with over 1,800 being “affordable.” But, we need to do still more. We are geared up to move housing proposals forward. Our working group meets every Monday to push the pipeline. We also need to think bigger, to imagine housing where we don’t right now. We’re running out of land, and we need new and creative ideas.

You have spoken extensively about getting the private sector more involved in the provision of affordable housing, especially with regard to employer-assisted housing. What are some specific ways this can be accomplished?

We need to reach out to major institutions, such as hospitals, colleges and banks, which are rooted in the community, and get them to offer assistance to their employees as an incentive to stay here. Recently, Citizens Bank came out with a major plan to provide down-payment assistance to their employees. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce also has started an employer-assisted housing program for its members. And some of the area hospitals are interested in developing affordable housing for their workers. I’m interested in a tax credit for employer contributions as a way to encourage more employers to participate in these kinds of programs.

Boston is fortunate to have a sophisticated array of nonprofit developers of affordable housing, yet it’s still a fragile sector. What are the ways you provide support to CDCs and other nonprofits, and how important is this in your overall housing policy for the city?

The CDCs are the ones that are trying the hardest to provide affordable housing in our city. Other mayors see them as rivals or competitors, but I see them as partners. They deal with a whole range of programs, like job training, helping new immigrants get a start and assisting small businesses.

We were the first major city in the country to provide HOME funds to CDCs for project development. We look favorably on projects that have strong community support and that often involve a local CDC. Right now, the private market is not developing affordable housing, except through city policies such as inclusionary zoning.

What would you say to the mayors of other cities about Boston’s experience with linkage and inclusionary zoning as a way to address the affordable housing shortage?

I would say that it works for us and other cities in our situation should look at it. There’s no one answer to the housing crisis. What works in Boston may not work in Toledo or Baton Rouge. We will always work with any other city that wants to generate more resources for workforce housing.

The city of Boston has utilized HOPE VI to revitalize two public housing developments, and a third is in the planning stages. But nationally, HOPE VI has been criticized for a significant loss of public housing units and failing to produce new units that are affordable to former residents. Is this critique valid? If so, what do you think should be done about it?

HOPE VI has worked well in Boston, but we make an extra effort to minimize the loss of housing and bring people back to the rebuilt housing. If we had a comprehensive national housing policy that spurred the development of hundreds of thousands of new assisted units, the loss of some units wouldn’t be as severe. First and foremost, we need to ensure that the residents are given the opportunity to return to the development.

Too many elected officials see public housing as a problem, and they want to get rid of it. They think of drugs and crime. But I see public housing as an asset and an opportunity. In Boston, we’re using city, state and federal money to fix up and preserve our public housing. We don’t want to lose this valuable resource.

You have spoken out in favor of bringing back some form of rent control, which has drawn opposition from the real estate industry. What are your reasons?

I see too many hard-working families who come up to me and tell me that their rent has been raised from $700 to $1,500 a month for no other reason than the landlord can get away with it in this market. That’s wrong. I filed “home rule” legislation on October 18 and hope the council will act expeditiously on it so that the legislature may consider it in early 2003.

Many suburban communities are fiercely resisting any kind of residential development, especially affordable family housing. At the same time, the larger cities are saying they’ve provided more than their fair share. What is necessary to ensure that all communities play a role in developing and preserving affordable housing?

Last year, we did 2,700 units of housing in Boston, but the 27 surrounding suburban communities only produced 478 units. That’s wrong. There need to be penalties for not accepting affordable housing. We need to withdraw state funding if they don’t produce. I filed a bill last session at the State House that would have done that.

The cities can’t be expected to do it alone. We need the suburbs to pull their weight. They have a responsibility. They can’t have two-acre zoning and prohibit multifamily housing. It’s like putting your head in the sand and saying there is no problem. Every city and town has lower-income people, but they are not meeting the needs of their own residents.

Should state and federal housing programs require some kind of income mixing of units? Would this make subsidized housing easier to build in middle-class neighborhoods in Boston and its suburbs?

I think that mixed-income housing is the way we should go, whenever possible. In fact, I’ve proposed that the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit be amended to include incentives for moderate-income units. We can’t just build housing for the rich and poor. We should include housing for moderate-income families in the mix.

I don’t know if that would make housing easier to accept in the suburbs. There’s been tremendous opposition to so-called “40B” projects, where developers can get a comprehensive permit from the state if the locality hasn’t built enough affordable housing. I think we need a better education process for the suburbs, a firm hand, and we need to build capacity for those towns who do want to build workforce housing. There are very few CDCs in the suburbs, not much capacity in local government and few resources. That’s why I’ve proposed a Massachusetts Housing Development Authority, to partner with local communities and organizations interested in being a part of the solution.

What kind of incentives can national, state or local government provide to get private builders to develop low- and moderate-income housing?

I’ve mentioned a couple – an expanded Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a National Housing Trust Fund and partnerships with state and local governments to build more suburban housing. I’d also exempt housing from the private bond cap – it’s needed, and it produces jobs and investment. It’s part of the full-court press that’s necessary.

As long as the opposition continues, it’s going to be difficult to get more local elected officials to take on the issue of affordable housing. What do you say to your colleagues about this?

As an elected official, when you take on the housing issue, you don’t get the headlines the next day. It may take three or four years before you see real results. You have to be committed over the long term.

A lot of elected officials like to talk about the issue, but taking action and being out in front is entirely different. The bottom line is that elected officials have to take a stand and be willing to take the political heat on affordable housing.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.