Study suggests Massachusetts’ “other” housing problem is worsening

Blighted and abandoned housing presents serious challenges for Gateway City neighborhoods

Boston – Skyrocketing costs and lack of affordable homes in Greater Boston’s strong housing market absorb the attention of policymakers and political leaders, yet Massachusetts also has many weak real estate markets, where low home values make it uneconomical to maintain older housing stock. This results in blighted and abandoned property, triggering further disinvestment and neighborhood decline.

new report from the nonpartisan think tank MassINC and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC) calls this Massachusetts’ “other housing problem” and urges state leaders to respond with a holistic approach.

“We need to pay more attention to this problem because neighborhoods play a fundamental role in nurturing lifelong well-being,” says MassINC research director, Ben Forman. “We also must recognize that if we continue to let these neighborhoods decline, more and more of this dense, older housing stock will be lost, and the affordable housing and homelessness problems Massachusetts faces will get that much worse.”

The report points out that neighborhood decline is at least partly a symptom of the growing economic divide in Massachusetts. The number of people living in neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents fall below the federal poverty line has more than doubled since 2000. Two-thirds of these high-poverty neighborhoods in Massachusetts are located in the state’s Gateway Cities. “Similar challenges exist in many suburban communities and some of our smaller cities as well. We need a statewide approach that leaves no neighborhood behind,” said Forman.

Real estate markets in Gateway Cities were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession and the foreclosure crisis, and most have yet to fully recover. In Fall River, Fitchburg, New Bedford, and Worcester, home values are still under their 2006 peak by 10 percent or more. As a group, Gateway Cities have nearly 6,000 fewer homeowners today than in 2000. And vacancy rates are steadily rising. More than one-in-ten housing units in Fall River, Fitchburg, Holyoke, and Pittsfield are vacant.

“There’s no doubt that economic forces are behind these troubling trends,” says Joe Kriesberg, who leads MACDC, an association that advocates on behalf of nonprofit member organizations working to rehabilitate blighted and abandoned homes in neighborhoods across the state. “But we must also appreciate that public policy choices have also played a major part.”

Communities with old, deteriorating housing need resources to keep neighborhoods from entering a downward spiral. Compared with 1980, Gateway Cities have lost more than $100 million annually in federal CDBG grants for neighborhood improvement. At the same time that federal funding has vanished, Massachusetts communities ab­sorbed sharp reductions in non-school state aid, proposition 2½ made it difficult for low-wealth communities to raise property taxes, and state education funding formulas directed most local revenue growth to required municipal school funding. The combined result of these policies is that cities lack resources to invest in neighborhoods to counter adverse forces that can trigger decline.

On Wednesday, MassINC and MACDC shared these findings at a breakfast on Beacon Hill for members of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus. They hope to work with legislators and the Baker Administration over the course of the next session to develop a comprehensive neighborhood revitalization toolset. This package would include regulatory tools to improve the condition of rental housing and help cities acquire abandoned properties, resources to rehabilitate older homes for purchase by low- and moderate-income buyers, and assistance to help communities strengthen neighborhoods in a strategic and targeted manner.

Lawrence mayor Dan Rivera can attest to the need. “Lawrence is a growing city full of hardworking families looking for a good place to live,” he says. “Owner-occupied triple-deckers once gave our families some extra rental income and a nest egg for retirement, but more and more of these properties have fallen into the hands of absentee owners who aren’t doing their part to keep the buildings up.”

Representative Antonio Cabral (D-New Bedford), House Chair of the Gateway Cities Legislative Caucus, welcomes the opportunity to work with municipal leaders on this issue in the coming legislative session: “As places that are welcoming to all, these neighborhoods are vital pathways to economic opportunity in our Commonwealth. We need to do everything in our power to ensure that they remain healthy and whole.”

“Western Mass. has many beautiful, affordable homes, but as job opportunities continue to be hyper-concentrated around the Greater Boston area, young people and families continue to move out of our neighborhoods. Housing leaders in our Gateway Cities like Springfield, Chicopee and Holyoke have a great deal of expertise working creatively to stabilize neighborhoods. That’s why we need to do give them the tools they need and do more to create jobs and bring resources back to our Gateway Cities to reinvigorate these housing markets,” said Senator Eric Lesser (D-Longmeadow).

Meet The Author

Llyr Johansen

Communications Director, MassINC

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