If you’re looking for a new apartment in Boston, you can expect to pay a hefty price. The median rent for one-bedrooms hovers around $2,000, and family-friendly units cost significantly more. For would-be homebuyers, the hurdles are just as bad: according to Realtor.com, the median list price for city homes is about $820,000 — a $70,000 increase from just two years ago.
All the candidates agree the city needs to build more affordable housing and streamline the development process to keep residents in the city. High housing costs contribute to Boston's huge racial-wealth gap.
Look closer, though, and some telling differences emerge. Among them: City Councilor Michelle Wu, the first candidate to officially enter the race, is a vocal proponent of rent control, also known as rent stabilization.
"Nearly two thirds of our population are renters, and more than half of renters are paying an unsustainable share of their income every year on housing costs," Wu said. "That means even when they’re able to make rent ... it’s hard choices about putting food on the table, or waiting to start a family."
Rent control is currently illegal in Massachusetts, thanks to a successful 1994 ballot initiative that banned it statewide. But Wu believes that, in Boston and surrounding communities, there's a growing appetite to bring it back, a move that would require action by the state Legislature.
To be clear, Wu doesn't want to freeze rents, but to cap rent increases while finding other ways to drive new construction.
"The state of Oregon, for example, passed a law that would dramatically increase density," Wu said. "[It boosts] that supply of housing that’s available while capping the annual [rent] increase to 7% plus inflation, which has worked out to be 9, 9.5% every year."
Polling on the mayoral race suggests that, along with Wu, Acting Mayor Kim Janey is one of the frontrunners. After opposing rent control earlier in the campaign, Janey has recently signaled that she's open to the idea — but she didn't bring it up in an interview with GBH News. Instead, Janey focused on moves she's made since replacing former Mayor Marty Walsh back in March, including significantly boosting assistance for some homebuyers.
"I was very proud to triple the investment that we were making in terms of down payment assistance," Janey said. "I invested $2.4 million, and have brought the down payment assistance for income-eligible, first-time home buyers from $10,000 to $40,000."
Janey also said the city’s Inclusionary Development Policy needs to be both beefed up and fine-tuned — though for now, she's not citing specifics.
At present, under the IDP, bigger projects that need zoning relief have to have 13% affordable housing on site, build it nearby and/or contribute to a citywide affordable-housing fund. The problem with that set-up, Janey says, is that it can bolster existing inequities rather than mitigating them.
"What we don’t want to do is reinforce neighborhoods that are ultra-wealthy and others that have deep, deep concentration of poverty," Janey said. "We want to make sure there are opportunities throughout our city for residents to live and thrive, in every single neighborhood."
Janey also notes that she grew up in subsidized housing; that her family was gentrified out of the South End; and that that she got her first apartment using a Section 8 voucher.
Another candidate, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, makes a similar point about her own lived experience.
"I grew up in affordable housing my entire life, growing up in the city of Boston," Campbell said. "I am a first-time homeowner in Mattapan. I have navigated those difficult systems."
In her first 100 days as mayor, Campbell says, she would begin developing 100 city-owned lots that are currently vacant, with Blue Hill Avenue — home, perhaps, to Boston’s largest concentration of Black-owned businesses — playing a starring role. It’s an accessible big idea that also lets Campbell tout her own record.
"Most of the lots on Blue Hill Ave. that are vacant and blighted and not well maintained are city owned," Campbell said. "Those are parcels within the power of the city of Boston ... to be able to activate to meet the needs of the community, to close the racial wealth gap, to build more housing that is affordable and to deal with issues of displacement. Folks have been talking about this for years — actually generations.
"For me, it’s building on the work I’ve already done as a councilor," Campbell added, referring to a vacant-lot push she launched in 2019. "As mayor, I would just complete it."
Campbell also points out that the first piece of council legislation she sponsored was the Community Preservation Act, which raises about $25 million annually for affordable housing, open space and historic preservation.
The final councilor in the race, Annissa Essabi George, agrees that Boston needs to continue aggressively expanding its housing supply. But she frames the problem a bit differently, focusing on average Bostonians she says are being left behind.
"We see a very widening gap in the type of housing that’s available," Essaibi George said. "[It's] for people on either end of the spectrum, but very little for people in the middle. And it’s unfortunate, because it sends a real message to the city’s residents, families, older Bostonians, working-class groups of people that there isn’t a place for them here in the city."
Essaibi George also cites her work on homelessness as a councilor and says it's imperative that new construction include larger residences that can comfortably house families.
While state and federal government should take the lead on public housing, Essaibi George adds, the city can provide invaluable help for homeowners — including "down payment assistance, closing-cost assistance and then supporting the homeowner throughout the time they own their home."
The final candidate in the race, John Barros, served as Walsh's chief of economic development. Recently, he said he expects Walsh will vote for him in September's preliminary election, which will winnow the field down to two finalists.
When it comes to housing, though, Barros has some implicit rebukes for his old boss.
"When the Walsh administration projected how much housing it would need, it did not anticipate that the population would grow at this pace," Barros said. "The growth has outpaced production."
In addition, Barros said, the city needs to stop letting private developers shortchange the neighborhoods where they build.
"Our communities plan for growth, and when they plan for growth there’s typically a cost differential between what the communities plan and the private sector can pay for," he said. "Just left to private developers ... it’s never going to meet the vision or the original plan of the community. As mayor, I will step in and ensure that we are loyal to the community’s plan and building up the neighborhood we want."
Barros also says he’d launch “neighborhood investment funds” that allow residents to buy into — and profit from — new development in their area. It’s an distinctive idea that points up a bigger problem all the mayoral candidates recognize: in Boston, there's a palpable sense that the booming housing market is leaving too many people behind.