When the Josiah Bartlett Center released our landmark study of the nexus between New Hampshire’s housing shortage and local land use regulations, in October of 2021, the connection between the two was not widely reported in the popular press. Academics, developers and planners knew that local regulations were responsible for reducing the supply of housing, but it was rarely mentioned in the media.
Not even two years later, and even media organizations that generally embrace government activism and progressive regulation of the economy are acknowledging that local land use regulations are at the root of the housing shortage here in New England.
The Boston Globe is out with a long editorial titled “A hundred years of choking housing growth catches up with Massachusetts.”
The conclusion: “Since the early 20th century, the Legislature has let individual municipalities thwart housing. Now the consequences threaten the Commonwealth’s future.”
The Globe pointed out that in 1920 Massachusetts legislators, acting on authority granted to them by a 1918 state constitutional amendment, authorized municipalities to regulate land use.
Municipalities “promptly started using their new authority to pass rules that suppressed housing growth and kept out poor people and renters.”
It didn’t take long for warning signs to start flashing about the impact of local obstructionism spawned by the zoning amendment. Just after World War II, the Globe reported that “zoning restrictions in many Greater Boston communities are hampering large rental projects” for returning veterans. In 1961, the Globe reported on complaints from builders that zoning rules made “more moderately priced housing ‘an impossibility to build.’ ” In 1971, a developer said, “until ways are found to force towns to change zoning codes … ‘we are not going to be able to lick the housing shortage in Massachusetts.’ ” A 1979 feature about housing in Braintree reported, “Because of zoning regulations and environmental restrictions … it is no longer financially feasible to build housing for the middle class in town.”
By and large, those warnings were ignored. Meanwhile, the gap between the cost of housing in Massachusetts and the cost of housing elsewhere kept widening. In 1940, according to the census, the median home value in Massachusetts was 1.3 times the national median. In 2000, it was 1.55 times. In 2021, it was 1.7 times.
Now, the bill may be coming due. The median single-family home in Greater Boston cost $707,250 in January, compared to $378,700 nationally in the fourth quarter of last year. In Boston, 46 percent of renters are “rent-burdened.” For years, housing advocates warned that crippling housing prices and the lure of cheaper housing elsewhere would eventually affect the state’s ability to sustain and attract businesses. Now a tipping point seems to have been reached; 110,000 people have left the state since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly enough to fill Fenway Park three times over.
The same story can be told of New Hampshire, although the timeline is somewhat different. Progressive zoning ordinances swept the state, separating workplaces from living spaces, segregating multi-family units from single-family units, and putting government in charge of everyone’s property. The results were predictable. Government regulations prevented developers from supplying the amount of housing necessary to meet demand, and the resulting shortage drove prices to record highs.
It’s not that this story was never told. It showed up in stories about specific housing proposals over the years. But now mainstream news organizations are connecting the dots to tell the bigger story. The Globe’s recognition that local regulations are central to the region’s housing shortage is important because the problem can’t be fixed until we’ve identified its cause. With the largest newspaper in New England lending its voice to the land use regulation reform movement, the push for increased private property rights gains an unexpected but welcome ally.