BOSTON (SHNS) – Citing housing affordability hurdles that are compounding workforce challenges, one of the state’s largest health care employers is getting behind a proposal to allow cities and towns in Massachusetts to put a new fee on housing transactions.
Mass General Brigham submitted testimony Wednesday to the Joint Committee on Housing in support of bills that would enable municipalities to impose of a fee of between 0.5 and 2 percent of the price of certain housing transactions in order to generate revenue to preserve affordable housing and fund new homes construction. The fee rate, and any exemptions, would be set locally, giving communities flexibility in crafting parameters.
As proposed, the bills (H 1377 and S 868) call for the new fees to be applied only on transactions featuring prices that are above the statewide or county median single-family home price.
If approved, the transfer fee could be in addition to similar fees imposed in the nearly 200 communities that have adopted the Community Preservation Act (CPA), a law approved in 2000 that permits a local fee of up to 3 percent to pay for open space protection, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation. More than 8,700 affordable housing units have been created and 14,700 more units supported with CPA funds.
Mass General Brigham, which employs more than 80,000 people and oversees a care system that treats more than 1.5 million patients annually, says high housing costs make health care workforce challenges particularly acute at its hospitals on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. But Elsie Taveras, chief community health equity officer at Mass General Brigham, says strained household housing budgets are also tied to health outcomes.
“Health and housing are inextricably linked, and research has demonstrated the connection between housing stability and health outcomes. The lack of affordable housing, and other social determinants of health, plague many neighborhoods disproportionately – particularly communities of color – leading to alarming health disparities,” Taveras wrote in testimony to the committee, a copy of which was obtained by the News Service.
Taveras cited research released in June 2021 by The Boston Foundation that found the health of children and caregivers improved when they had access to stable housing, with the average number of emergency department visits dropping from 2.3 visits to 1.3 over a 12-month period.
Supporters of the bill say a new fee is justified because runaway housing costs are increasingly hampering the ability of employers to sustain workforces across industries, including the restaurant, retail, education and public safety sectors.
Real estate industry officials over the years have successfully bottled up proposals to impose new fees on property transactions, arguing against the idea of making housing costs higher in order to address a problem that is a statewide issue and the focus of numerous, longstanding government-sponsored housing programs.
Bill supporters counter that Massachusetts was ranked the the third least least affordable state in the nation by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, evidence that more must be done to address the problem.
“The cry can be heard from every corner of the state, large and small, urban and rural: we cannot find affordable places for people to live,” said Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness. “This Transfer fee legislation is a critical response to this all-hands-on-deck situation. We must give our local communities the option to use it.”
Mass General Brigham’s support for the bill was announced by the Transfer Fee for Affordable Housing Coalition, a group of more than 70 community organizations, housing and planning agencies, and municipalities that also supports bills filed by individual municipalities where officials have already backed proposed transfer fees.
Communities that have passed real estate transfer fee home rule petitions include Boston, Concord, Somerville, Nantucket, Brookline, Provincetown, Chatham, Cambridge and Arlington, according to the coalition’s website.
The bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton and Rep. Michael Connolly of Cambridge, welcomed the support from Mass General Brigham. The company’s backing could help build momentum for the bill on Beacon Hill, although it has not been mentioned as a priority matter by Democratic legislative leaders who exercise great control over which bills emerge in the House and Senate for votes and which ones remain in committees.
The Housing Committee faces a Feb. 2 deadline to make a recommendation on the bill. The committee is co-chaired by Democrat Sen. John Keenan of Quincy and Rep. James Arciero of Westford.