Chronic Housing Instability in the City of Boston
The City of Boston, like many of our coastal cities, is dealing with a housing crunch like no other. A shortage of affordable housing is pushing people out of affordable rentals and homeownership, and increasing the prevalence of housing instability at the margins, including evictions, housing discrimination, and predatory landlords. There’s a lot the city is currently trying to do, and a lot it’s not able to do because of a difficult regulatory environment. This is a speculative exercise in what I would do, could I change those things:
Markets – The City of Boston is past the point where building affordable housing might appreciably affect chronic housing instability for marginalized communities. Like most cities in the Northeast, there’s incredible pressure on the supply of housing currently available in the city. Furthermore, the pace and type of construction (far more market-rate housing is going up than affordable units) is insufficient to address these needs. Because the change necessary to stymie housing instability from a traditional market perspective is really slow, I’d advocate for a faster market-driven solutions that could supplement construction by allowing people to stay in their homes during times of stress or insecurity. For example, should a family come close to missing a rental payment, the city could offer a program that steps in to foot the bill during moments of emergency or an issue of timing mismatch. This critical aid during moments of vulnerability can keep families in their homes more permanently, kids in their schools, prevent the short-term panic caused by a potential eviction or case of homelessness. The City of Boston recently hiked up prices for traffic tickets across the city—this could be a good way to funnel that money.
Norms – Though finding housing for single students is hard, finding housing for working families is an especially difficult endeavor in the city due to cost, availability of right-sized units, high broker fees and security deposits, and increasingly the coordination problems caused by the widely accepted September 1st move-in date. Because so many properties save units for a September 1st move-in, it creates a landlord’s paradise both in terms of price and wraparound services for the move. Due to that artificial scarcity that hits the market around mid-June and early-July, families looking to move into apartments in summertime are forced to sublet for the first few months of their stay, pay exorbitant fees to brokers to show the last few apartments on the market, and take time from busy work days to view the last few available apartments at their price range. The increased competition creates spillovers throughout the rental market, including the high price of movers, trucks, cleaning services, and the incredible pressure on the few days surround September 1st move-in. While this may work for a flexible student schedule, the extra costs due to missed days of work, financial burden, brokers fees and child care are incredibly difficult or impossible for working families, locking them out of housing opportunity. Releasing the pressure of 9/1 and the Allston Christmas might smooth out the housing market throughout the city, making it easier on renters who aren’t students to find housing for the year.
Law – Boston’s housing market has relatively few protections for renters, including those at risk of eviction, rent hikes, and discriminatory landlords. Though the city is subject to federal laws governing fair housing and other housing provisions, stringent home rule means that efforts to enact rules like rent control and just cause evictions have stalled at the State House. Fixing housing in Boston is hard as a result, both because legislation is hard to pass and property owners and landlords are particularly powerful in the city. If I could do anything to affect chronic housing instability in the city, I would remove home rule to allow the city more flexibility to enact the housing legislation that works best for Boston.
Code – The city has incredibly limited data on housing instability because there are only a few ways for folks to report problematic landlords or practices to the city without retribution. I would bolster the 311 services the city already has to allow for anonymous reporting of landlords to the city to better define landlords who perpetuate evictions or discrimination with limited risk for the reporting party.
Traffic fatalities due to bicycle-vehicle crashes
Though the city of Boston is aiming to lessen serious traffic accidents through it’s efforts through Vision Zero, most of these interventions are geared towards increasing driver awareness of bicycles in the street, and maintaining the right of way for all modes of transportation.
Markets – There are already quite high financial penalties for traffic fatalities, not least of all the money needed attend to yourself or your vehicle after a wreck. However, I’d bolster that financial incentive by explicitly detailing insurance plans to increase driver awareness towards bikers. Perhaps more congested cities can make biker-vehicle interactions a clear line-item in driver’s insurance plans, creating specific monetary penalties for crashes involving a bicycle.
Norms – The “Dutch reach” is often an example a particularly effective mechanism for increasing driver awareness of bikers. By incentivizing drivers to check their side view before opening their doors, it will decrease dooring crashes between motor vehicles and bicyclists, one of the largest contributors to serious injuries in bike-vehicle accidents. Although that is a specific intervention, it does imply that drivers are generally aware enough of bikers to moderate their own behavior, which is a place I think we can get to.
Law – It’s very legal for bikes to be on the road, but it doesn’t always appear to be that way based on signage, road markings, and other indicators of the rules of the road. Where there aren’t road markings, there should be signs alerting drivers to the rules of the road, namely that drivers and bikers are to share the roadway
Code – Build a warning system into vehicles to let them know there are items in there peripheral approaching. For example, some newer models of motor vehicles have lights on their mirrors that illuminate when other vehicles or obstructions approach the car. Something like this would be immensely helpful to alert drivers of bikes approaching and reduce fatalities.
Excessive Suspensions and Expulsions in K-5 schools
The widely publicized school-to-prison pipeline is one of the major contributors to structural racism in our lifetime. A stab at some solutions:
Markets – Though markets and education already have a difficult relationship (and I’m not advocating for complicating that relationship further), a solution may come in disincentivizing punitive action for young kids. The cost of teachers staying after school to host detentions, parents arranging childcare for suspended young children, and the administrative cost of expelling students are all faced by some actor in this ecosystem. Perhaps instead it may be cheaper to train teachers in deescalation tactics or embed moments of reflection in the school day, leaning away from punitive actions for kids who may be having a difficult time adjusting to school.
Norms – I think we need to shift away from excessive punitive actions for young children in school anyway, especially to young boys of color. By treating rambunctious behavior as inherently dangerous, it stigmatizes playfulness for young kids far more than necessary. This is the first place I’d start. By putting additional emphases on the socioemotional perspective of a school day, kids may be more able to communicate the things that are troubling them, and it may open a conversation that can precede disciplinary action.
Law – Where it is flexible enough to do so, school superintendents and principals could enact rules that create more distance between initial “offenses” and suspensions. For example, kids may have to see a school counselor for a certain number of sessions before a detention, or have a certain number of parent/teacher conferences before moving directly to suspensions and expulsions.
Code – Often when kids act up in school, it can be due to a number of other issues including their home or neighborhood environment, personal difficulties, bullying, or a myriad of other issues. It may be helpful to develop a way to track students who are seeing other professionals to address a number of these other issues (for example, a child’s social worker, spiritual leader, sports coach) to coordinate care more effectively for students who may really need it. That extra ounce of coordination may keep a student from falling behind in school, or worse, getting suspended or expelled for a minor offense.