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MIT report debunks affordable housing myths

The one thing that everybody close to Boston talks about--besides the Red Sox--is the high cost of housing. But affordable housing can be an even more controversial subject than the Sox. Fortunately, one point of contention has now been authoritatively resolved. A report from the Center for Real Estate (MIT/CRE) debunks the notion that affordable housing developments depress the values of nearby single-family dwellings.

MIT/CRE researchers completed a painstaking study of seven affordable housing projects in six towns in suburban Boston and found that these mixed-income, high-density rental developments--so-called 40B developments--have no adverse effects on nearby property values. The projects studied--two in Littleton and one each in Mansfield, Norwood, Randolph, Wilmington and Woburn--were deliberately chosen because they included "suburbanites' worst nightmares," some of the most dense and controversial 40B projects completed in Massachusetts between 1980 and 2000.

The researchers--Henry Pollakowski, David Ritchay and Zoe Weinrobe-- established carefully drawn "impact areas" to delineate the neighborhoods in which developments were located. To define the boundaries of the impact areas, they tapped many different sources of information: zoning and land use maps, aerial photographs, road atlases, site visits and meetings with local officials. Property values in the impact areas were then compared to values in the rest of the town over a number of years, using data from 36,000 property sales between 1982 and 2003.

The study's findings were presented by Pollakowski, the team leader as well as director of MIT/CRE's new Housing Affordability Initiative, during a briefing and panel discussion on April 27. The results, Pollakowski says, were striking: In all cases, house price movements in the impact areas simply "tracked" those in nearby market areas.

The panelists, representing the full spectrum of state and municipal perspectives on affordable housing, were not surprised by the study's results. Fred Habib, deputy director of the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development, commented, "We never hear complaints about the developments themselves once they're actually built." But he was relieved that independent research could confirm what up until now has been merely anecdotal evidence. As Habib summed up, "I absolutely think [the report] will be viewed with suspicion--all these things are--but it's got MIT behind it."

The panelists quickly moved on, noting that the debate would now shift to other areas. Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, touched a nerve when he said that much of the opposition to affordable housing is expressed in "code." "The arguments [against affordable housing] are arguments of race and class," he said, "but it's no longer polite to say those things, and it's no longer polite for public officials to make the statement I just made." One study won't change things, he noted, but he hoped that "the center's work will chip away at the armor we use to oppose these things; more studies and forceful and dramatic leadership will lead to a gradual turn-around."

The full report, "Effects of Mixed-Income, Multi-Family Housing Developments on Single-Family Housing Values," which includes an executive summary, is available on MIT/CRE's web site,

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 4, 2005 (download PDF).

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