Meeting Housing Needs: Fund more housing with high-end transfer fees

The housing crisis in our state is well documented. So well, in fact, that it may be one of the only topics in today’s political discourse that doesn’t trigger an immediate debate when mentioned.

By now, most folks shouldn’t have to look far to observe the ripple effects of housing insecurity. Even those fortunate enough to not have been personally impacted by rent spikes or an increasingly exclusive real estate market can feel residual effects. Employers face staffing challenges, elders are losing their children to more competitive states, and attendance is falling within community groups and places of worship.

There aren’t many ways that municipalities can combat these worrying trends at the local level. Rental assistance programs are running out of pandemic-era supports, and affordable housing projects such as Drexel Village in Roxbury need more funds to accelerate development. As it stands, we simply cannot outpace the housing crisis without making new tools available.

For nearly two years, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) has advocated for the passage of enabling legislation that would allow municipalities to assess fees on high-value real estate sales and use the proceeds to fund affordable housing trusts. Known generally as “real estate transfer fees,” this funding mechanism could unlock hundreds of millions of dollars across the state that would ultimately help keep people around and even create new pathways to homeownership for historically marginalized groups.

Governor Healey’s proposed Affordable Homes Act, which is currently being debated on Beacon Hill, includes the transfer fee enabling legislation that we hoped for. If passed, it would not impose a mandate. In fact, cities and towns that determine they would benefit from taxing big ticket property sales can choose to do so, or not. While the thresholds and percentages associated with the tool certainly warrant debate, we are hopeful that our elected officials will uphold community choice and agency by at least making it an option by the end of this legislative session.

According to estimates from groups like MACDC, Boston alone could be leaving over $100 million on the table annually if some form of transfer fee doesn’t get passed. The impact of adding that much money to the pot, especially in communities like Dorchester, would be game-changing. Funding for the development of affordable units would only be the start. Other services like rental assistance and subsidies for first-time homebuyers could also be greatly expanded with these funds. Middle and lower-income families would benefit from more housing options, shortening commutes and fostering diversity in the process.

As a broad-based organization made up primarily of faith institutions representing over 100,000 people across Greater Boston, GBIO is uniquely positioned to demonstrate just how hungry people are for anything that will put a dent in the housing crisis. We’ve stood in the thousands alongside nonprofit executives and healthcare employers, local real estate agents and major developers, public housing tenants and homeowners. People are ready for a shift, so the omission of this critical funding mechanism in the House Ways and Means Committee’s version of the Affordable Homes Act is perplexing, to say the least.

Under most models, real estate transfer fees would only be applicable to property sales in excess of $1 million, immediately protecting most average buyers or sellers from any impact. Additionally, sales for the purposes of affordable development can be made exempt from the tax, as well transfers to relatives or nonprofit organizations. With that in mind, one begins to wonder who even stands to “lose” here, aside from big name brokers and property flippers who have undoubtedly enjoyed a windfall from skyrocketing home prices over the years. From our perspective, a small 0.5 percent to 2 percent fee on major sales is worth it if it means that young families can settle down, elders can keep their loved ones close, and more people can live in the towns where they work. More than 30 other states in the nation have implemented some form of transfer fee with success, so why is “progressive” Massachusetts late to the party?

Phil Hillman and Rev. Burns Stanfield are co-chairs of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

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