Lisa Alexander (Caitlin Cunningham)

Law and the affordable housing crisis

A Q&A with Boston College Law Professor Lisa T. Alexander, an expert on U.S. housing law and policy

Boston College Law Professor Lisa T. Alexander is an expert on United States housing law and policy and the law’s role in making housing markets more affordable, efficient, and equitable. Alexander has done extensive scholarship in legal and extra-legal rights to property, housing, and urban space—including most recently the study of tiny houses, providing insights to policymakers on how to reimagine housing options and property rights for today’s world. Alexander is also faculty director of Housing and Property Rights Programs for 51 Law’s new Initiative on Land, Housing & Property Rights Programs. In a recent discussion with Chronicle, she touched on housing trends in Massachusetts, particularly the affordable housing crisis and possible remedies to address it. Alexander will be a speaker at "Promoting Racial Justice in Housing," a Boston College Forum on Racial Justice in America event on November 15.

Although statistics indicate that while mortgage lending to Boston-based Black and Latino home buyers hit record highs in 2021, disparities continue in wealthier communities and areas where the practice of “redlining” persisted, despite being outlawed by the U.S. 1968 Fair Housing Act. What steps could be taken to increase the number of Black and Latino homeowners, even in an expensive market like Boston?

In every state, Black, Latinx, and Native American households have lower homeownership rates than white households. Greater Boston has one of the largest racial homeownership gaps in the nation, with just 40 percent of Black and 37 percent of Latino households headed by an adult 35 years or older owning their homes, compared to 73 percent of white households. Law and public policy choices undeniably caused these racial disparities. White Americans became homeowners and built wealth due to the 1930 Federal Housing Administration housing insurance subsidies, the GI Bill, and USDA policies, while Blacks and other immigrants of color were explicitly denied these opportunities because of their race, not their socioeconomic status.

Today in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, where 90 percent of the population is Black or Latinx, only 23 percent of the population owns their homes, as compared to 34 percent in Greater Boston. States and localities should consider legal strategies to remedy the present effects of past discrimination and affirmatively further minority homeownership, such as down payment assistance and homebuyer education for first-time homeowners who were subject to racially restrictive covenants and other forms of state- and local-sanctioned discrimination before the Fair Housing Act. The act’s affirmatively furthering fair housing provisions may also permit narrowly tailored remedies for past racial discrimination, such as race-conscious marketing and buyer selection for homeownership, among other solutions.

The MBTA Communities Law passed in 2021 mandates that cities and towns outside of Boston with MBTA access must zone for more multifamily housing, compelling them to plan for enough apartments to help Massachusetts tackle its housing shortage. It’s been estimated that more than 100,000 new homes would be constructed in Eastern Massachusetts if these municipalities meet the requirements. But the law has met with opposition, pitting cities and towns against housing advocates. Is legislation such as this an effective way to address the housing problem?

Massachusetts’s legacy of exclusionary zoning and racial discrimination has made housing more expensive for everyone in the state by significantly reducing the housing supply. The MBTA Communities Law is an ambitious statewide effort to redress the acute housing affordability crisis that plagues most of Massachusetts by increasing the supply of affordable multifamily housing near transit stops. Exclusionary zoning measures enacted by municipalities, such as single-family zoning districts, large minimum housing lot sizes, density restrictions, and apartment bans, operate to elevate the cost of housing for all by restricting the number of units that can be built.

Boston has disproportionately carried the burden of creating affordable housing within the state; the MBTA Communities Law seeks to make the other 175 municipalities in the state to which the law applies equally bear their fair share of the responsibility for creating affordable multifamily housing. While many municipalities claim that the law constitutes “social engineering,” that term is a misnomer because it obscures the role law and policies must play in shaping more equitable, inclusive, accessible, and non-discriminatory markets, just as the law created unequal markets in the past. The attorney general also has a strong claim that cities that fail to comply with the law may violate the Fair Housing Act.

The surge in new migrants has collided with the U.S. housing crisis and a simultaneous spike in homelessness throughout the nation. Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey estimated that the state is spending $45 million per month to shelter unhoused people and migrants. Efforts to increase housing, including zoning modifications to allow construction of low-cost suburban units, have failed in a number of major cities. Is there a way out of this predicament?

The state has an emergency shelter crisis, which began before Governor Healey and the present political moment. A 1983 “Profile of the Homeless in Massachusetts” revealed that between 8,000-10,000 homeless people were either living in shelters or on the streets; at that time, approximately 25 percent of that population were families with children. Massachusetts created a 1983 right-to-shelter law for low-income Massachusetts residents who are pregnant or who have children under the age of 21 years, and can show they are homeless for reasons outside of their control. The current migrant crisis has strained the state’s capacity to implement this right.

Governor Healey announced that as of November 1, remaining unhoused families would be placed on a waiting list. The state needs more housing supply for the most vulnerable families. However, the crisis should not cause Massachusetts to curtail or repeal rights consistent with its values just because the shelter supply is constrained.

I have argued that tiny homes—less than 400 square feet—can be an alternative form of rapid, cost-effective, low-barrier shelter for unhoused people. Tiny homes have a smaller environmental footprint, and cities can develop tiny-home villages more quickly and cheaply than many other supportive housing and shelter options; they can also provide residents opportunities for positive community building, co-management, and self-determination that shelters often do not.

Tiny houses have been hailed as an affordable, eco-friendly solution for individuals experiencing a lack of shelter. But what challenges and obstacles do cities face when implementing tiny homes villages, and what opportunities do the villages offer as a short- or long-term solution for homelessness?

In my article “,” I provided a typology and analysis of tiny homes villages throughout the U.S., including a 21-unit village in Worcester; Cottage Village in Jamaica Plain created 12 mini-cabin homes for people formerly sleeping on the streets or in tents at the “Mass and Cass” encampment at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the City Council recently authorized clearing the tents for community safety.

Can the tiny homes village model be scaled up to safely and holistically serve people moving from Mass and Cass? It is easiest to implement the model on a smaller scale and then expand over time. Austin, Texas, has been very successful in scaling up the model to serve chronically homeless people, but the site is also located on a bus stop outside of the downtown; it serves large numbers of formerly homeless people with a spectrum of service needs from modest to intensive needs, and a successful faith-based non-profit supports the village. The devil will be in the details of designing the model to fit the local context, facilitate positive internal community relations, and integrate with surrounding communities.

Tiny homes villages for unhoused people will only work for some former Mass and Cass residents; it is not a panacea. It should be one option among a panoply of housing and emergency shelter solutions tailored to the local context. I am developing a book concept on tiny homes to explore these issues further.