Gimme Shelter

Being able to afford housing in Boston, and other desirable cities like it, is increasingly out of reach for too many. What can be done, legally and politically, to combat the problem?

Housing Shortage in Boston

Janice Zhou

August 31, 2020 08:00 AM

Big cities equal big rent. It’s well-known that living in a large urban area comes with costs—rental housing (and housing prices more broadly) chief among them. Boston, like other desirable places, is experiencing a housing shortage that’s driving up rents.

This affects not only new arrivals but also those who have lived in the city for years—individuals and families who find it increasingly hard to stay in their homes because of the rising expense. According to Harvard Business Review, factors such as home-sharing platforms like Airbnb, gentrification, and overall economic trends are placing stress on Boston’s housing market as well.

Rent prices may shift in the future due to thousands left unemployed and unable to pay rent because of COVID-19, but as of right now rent is still high.

We spoke with two Best Lawyers–recognized attorneys about what can be done, legally, to help ease the shortage.

Donald Pinto Jr.
Partner at Pierce Atwood
Recognized for Real Estate Law Since 2018

What can be done to solve this problem?

It’s well-known that “the rent is too damn high” in the Boston metropolitan area. While it’s a complex issue with many causes, from my vantage point as a real estate litigator, one key cause is the proliferation of onerous, smothering land-use regulations that make housing production difficult, if not impossible—creating scarcity that drives up prices in both the rental and ownership markets. Reining in municipal authority to enact limitless regulations would, in the long run, increase production and help bring prices down.

Matthew Lawlor
Partner at Robinson & Cole
Recognized for Real Estate Law Since 2019

Can people legally fight this?

Definitely. The housing affordability crisis in our highest-demand cities, including Boston, is the result of many factors, but regulatory restrictions on new housing that have been in place for decades play a very significant role. Changing these restrictions to allow for more housing production has to be a key part of the solution.

What legal measures can people take?

In Massachusetts, we see efforts [at] regulatory reform at the state level, where housing-production bills that include a change in the two-thirds-majority requirement for zoning amendments—a powerful roadblock to the local zoning changes that need to happen all across the Boston region—have been pending in the current session and are under active consideration. And at the local level, zoning amendments and project approvals are being pursued to allow for the construction of more housing units. A recent example is the approval of the 1,000-unit-plus mixed-use Northland development in Newton, which the Newton City Council approved last year, an approval upheld this week in a citywide referendum invoked by project opponents.

What are the repercussions of this issue, both in general and for the legal industry?

The general-level repercussions have been twofold: growing concern over displacement of existing residents, and then more broadly concern about the effect of increasingly unaffordable rents and housing prices on the Boston region’s long-term health and economic prospects. In the legal field, there’s a focus on displacement/eviction and housing production and using legal means, case by case and at the municipal level, to address those issues.

To the extent that rents and housing prices in the more accessible inner core of the Boston region are increasing more than other parts of the region, that will tend to drive renters and homebuyers to the region’s fringes, exacerbating our congestion and climate-change crises and trading cheaper housing for a more expensive commute and other travel options.

How can we make housing more affordable?

The problem is best seen at two levels, both of which call for more housing supply but with different characteristics and approaches. For renters and buyers in the middle class and above, we need more overall housing units added to the open market that will bring supply more in line with existing and future demand. This is where relaxing regulatory restrictions to boost housing production works well.

For folks in the working class and below, we need a lot more deed-restricted affordable housing, produced both by the private market—through inclusionary housing requirements and low-income housing tax-credit mechanisms—as well as significantly expanded affordable-housing subsidies and direct public-housing unit production, because the private market simply won’t ever produce units that households at the bottom of the market can afford, and we need more affordable units to protect those households from the trauma of displacement.


Related Articles

How Real Estate Transactions in the Residential Sector Work

by Best Lawyers

Discover how real estate transactions in the residential sector work with this guide. Learn about the stages, parties involved and legal requirements.

Man looking at houses on computer

House Trap

by Heidi E. Storz

Special districts are often being used as profit centers that leave residents to foot the bill. These homeowners deserve protection from unscrupulous developers who attempt to fleece them and avoid accountability.

Special Districts Changing Property Ownership

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers: Real Estate and Infrastructure Publication

by Best Lawyers

Featuring the top legal talent from The Best Lawyers in America, Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America and "Lawyer of the Year" recipients for real estate and infrastructure as well as thought leadership from some of the nation's top lawyers.

Real Estate and Infrastructure Publication

Choosing a Title Company: What a Seller Should Expect

by Roy D. Oppenheim

When it comes to choosing a title company, how much power exactly does a seller have?

Choosing the Title Company As Seller

WATCH: Best Lawyers Discusses COVID-19 & Rental Agreements

by Best Lawyers

Three legal experts join the CEO of Best Lawyers to talk about a general approach to “the rental” market and what happens if tenants can’t pay rent in May.

COVID-19 Panel: Rental Agreements

Impact of Climate Change on Real Estate Law

by Best Lawyers

Dr. Christian Schede discusses rent in large cities, the effect of Airbnb, and more.

An Interview With Greenberg Traurig

Client Service in Real Estate Law: Identifying Attorneys Who Truly Care

by Best Lawyers

What is client service in real estate law, and why is it important? Learn more about the value a real estate lawyer who emphasizes client service can provide.

Two unseen individuals shake hands with miniature house models in background


Foiled Plans: How Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. Thwarted A Famous Building’s Trickery

by Rebecca Blackwell

When the Frick building, planned renovations that would threaten the welfare of nearby residents, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. jumped in to uncover the truth.

Front of the Frick Building in New York City

4 Essential Steps for Commercial Real Estate Due Diligence

by Best Lawyers

Due diligence in real estate is essential for all parties. Best Lawyers walks through the key steps of effective due diligence in commercial real estate.

Animated magnify glass in front of building and checklist

The Role of Title Insurance in Real Estate Transactions

by Best Lawyers

Title insurance can provide benefits, protection and peace of mind in a real estate transaction, which can often be complex. Best Lawyers take a closer look.

Individual signing a document with house keys in background

Maximizing Your Investment in Real Estate Development with Legal Expertise

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers evaluates the various types of real estate development projects and why hiring legal expertise could maximize the outcome of your investment.

Wooden house cut outs in a shopping cart with a blue backdrop

Leasing Commercial Real Estate

by Best Lawyers

We have compiled this “leasing commercial real estate checklist” to help guide discussions with a commercial real estate lawyer before signing a lease.

Unseen figure with pen points to apartment building model


A Street Fight in the Bronx

by Adam Leitman Bailey

Adam Leitman Bailey’s firm helped settle a Bronx brawl over land between two parties and brought victory against a long-standing powerful family in New York.

Warehouse in New York at night


Heroes Among Men: How Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. Saved Lives of the Lifesaving

by Rebecca Blackwell

When a 911 Center in New York City was put in danger, Adam Leitman Bailey, P.C. went to work against the unlawful and hazardous actions of a developer whose construction threatened the peace and safety of all who worked for the Fortune 500 company.

Danger construction site no trespassing sign on fence

The Role of Flood Zones in Florida Real Estate Transactions

by Best Lawyers

Get a comprehensive understanding of flood zones in Florida real estate. Learn about the risks, insurance requirements and disclosure obligations.

Trees blowing in flood waters and storm


Adam Leitman Bailey Saves Upper East Cooperative From Forced NYU Combination With Neighboring University Building

by Rebecca Blackwell

When a New York resident of an iconic building was faced with a potentially devastating renovation to his beloved home, powerhouse real estate lawyer Adam Leitman Bailey tightened the knot on the loophole others said didn’t exist.

Large brownstone building with blue sky above in New York City

Trending Articles

A Celebration of Excellence: The Best Lawyers in Canada 2024 Awards

by Best Lawyers

As we embark on the 18th edition of The Best Lawyers in Canada™, we are excited to highlight excellence and top legal talent across the country.

Abstract image of red and white Canada flag in triangles

The Long, Short, Thick and Thin of It

by Avrohom Gefen

“Appearance discrimination” based on employees’ height and weight is the latest hot-button issue in employment law. Here’s a guide to avoid discrimination.

Woman stands in front of mirror holding suit jacket

Vanguards of Victory: Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2024

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada™ has been announced, and the lawyers showcased by these awards are rising to the challenge each day as advocates for clients all across the country.

Blue and black background with small squares connected by lines

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in America Honorees

by Best Lawyers

Only the top 5.3% of all practicing lawyers in the U.S. were selected by their peers for inclusion in the 29th edition of The Best Lawyers in America®.

Gold strings and dots connecting to form US map

Trailblazing Titans of the Industry: Announcing the 4th Edition Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch® in America

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers honor and celebrate these talented, innovative newer lawyers who are trailblazing their way to victories in courtrooms across the country.

Connected web above map of the U.S.

Pearls of Wisdom: Celebrating 30 Editions of Best Lawyers’ Rankings

by Best Lawyers

In celebration of our landmark 30th edition, Best Lawyers’ leadership explains how the world’s original and most trusted legal awards maintain their esteem, integrity and reputation for excellence among the top legal entities and their clients.

Best Lawyers logo for 30th edition release with gold glitter in background

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2023

by Best Lawyers

The third edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America™ highlights the legal talent of lawyers who have been in practice less than 10 years.

Three arrows made of lines and dots on blue background

Announcing the 2023 The Best Lawyers in Canada Honorees

by Best Lawyers

The Best Lawyers in Canada™ is entering its 17th edition for 2023. We highlight the elite lawyers awarded this year.

Red map of Canada with white lines and dots


Thomson Rogers: Toronto Personal Injury Lawyers

by Thomson Rogers

Since establishment in 1935, Toronto-based firm Thomson Rogers has consistently delivered results for their clients struggling through complex litigation.

Top of a Staircase Featuring Two Large Black Doors with Bookshelves and Chairs on Each Side

The Best Lawyers in South Africa™ 2023

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers proudly announces lawyers recognized in South Africa for 2023.

South African flag


How Long Does a Felony Stay On Your Record in California

by Peter Blair

A felony can remain on your record for life in California. Some felonies qualify for expungement. Learn how to remove a felony conviction from your record in California.

Hand setting bird free out of a guarded fence

What the Courts Say About Recording in the Classroom

by Christina Henagen Peer and Peter Zawadski

Students and parents are increasingly asking to use audio devices to record what's being said in the classroom. But is it legal? A recent ruling offer gives the answer to a question confusing parents and administrators alike.

Is It Legal for Students to Record Teachers?

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers® in the United States

by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers listed in the 28th Edition of The Best Lawyers in America® and in the 2nd Edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America for 2022.

2022 Best Lawyers Listings for United States

The Upcycle Conundrum

by Karen Kreider Gaunt

Laudable or litigious? What you need to know about potential copyright and trademark infringement when repurposing products.

Repurposed Products and Copyright Infringemen

Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada 2023

by Best Lawyers

The year 2023 marks the second edition of Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in Canada, highlighting professionals earlier in their legal careers all across Canada.

Blue background with white stairs formed out of lines

The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2024 Launch

by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is excited to announce The Best Lawyers in Australia™ for 2023, including the top lawyers and law firms from Australia.

Australian Parliament beside water at sunset