Document Type

Research Report

Publication Date



This paper argues, first, that most housing problems—in Boston and throughout the nation—are ultimately the result of the squeeze between inadequate incomes, on the one hand, and the cost of profitably providing housing on the other. It is also argued that housing cost and incomes together are the most decisive determinants of the overall quality of life of families and communities. Third, it is contended that the long history of inadequate attempts to cope with the affordabiiity problem have not only failed to solve the problem, but have indeed contributed significantly to the broader and serious problems of the overall economy, with resultant impact on Boston's budget, employment, and other vital areas, as weil as its housing market.

The principal policy implications which follow from the analysis are, correspondingly, of three types. First, housing policies—at the local as well as at the state and national levels—must be coupled with and include policies for increasing and redistributing income. Second, housing policies must be formulated with explicit recognition of and attention to their potential to affect the quality of life far beyond just the goal of providing more affordable shelter for the residents. Third, there can be no solution to the housing affordability problem without a solution to the broader political and economic crisis, but at the same time there can be no solution to the broader problems that does not deal with the roots of the housing crisis.

The housing affordabiiity problem in Boston is examined quantitatively through the lens of a concept called "shelter poverty"—a sliding scale of affordabiiity based on the interaction among incomes, shelter costs, and non-shelter expenditures. It is demonstrated , using this concept, that a family of four in Boston would need an income of at least $23,000 to be able to afford the median-priced unsubsidized, two-bedroom apartment available in the city in 1983, while an elderly couple would need an income of nearly $12,000 to be able to afford the median-priced one-bedroom apartment. Nearly one-third of the households in Boston are shelter-poor, most of them renters and most with incomes of under $10,000 a year.

A set of policy proposals are presented for beginning to deal in an appropriate way with the housing affordability problem in the city. While the structural changes required to truly solve the problem must occur nationally, local policies aimed at both the income and housing cost side of the problem can begin to make an impact in Boston while possibly serving as models for larger-scale reform. Because of fiscal constraints and continued skepticism about the efficacy of traditional spending programs, the proposed policies focus primarily on institutional change rather than major expenditures. They include suggestions for enhancing the income prospects and employment situations of lower-income Bostonians, as well as proposals for altering some aspecis of the structure and dynamics of the local housing market.

Finally, it is argued that Boston—especially through its new city administration-has the potential to exercise great leadership and initiative nationally for a new understanding of the nature and causes of the housing problem, and thus for new kinds of policy directions for effectively addressing this profound problem of our city and our society.


Prepared for the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs.



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