Advancing Housing Equity in Massachusetts

a brownstone building with a blue box that says "Advancing Housing Equity in Massachusetts"

Housing access in Massachusetts is at a crisis level. A two-bedroom apartment in MA, the third most expensive state for housing, requires an annual household income of . These costs are exacerbated by , especially among affordable units. The deficit of affordable and available housing for extremely low-income residents has grown to units. Meanwhile, builders are financially incentivized to rather than desperately needed affordable units. The result is a scenario. This painful dynamic occurs when residents spend 30% or more of their gross income simply to acquire and maintain housing.

headshot of Dana LeWinter

Figure 1. Dana LeWinter, former Director of Municipal Engagement, CHAPA

Organizations such as the are working to improve the availability and affordability of housing in Massachusetts. In the spring of 2023, we asked Dana LeWinter, the former Director of Municipal Engagement at CHAPA, about the organization鈥檚 approach to this important work.

Affiliated with CHAPA for nearly 20 years, Dana鈥檚 aim has been to move housing policy forward. After working as a CHAPA intern in 2004, she returned in 2009 to manage the Collaborative for two years. In 2018, she came back to CHAPA to transform local housing policy through an exciting initiative described later in this post. Dana is now the Chief of Public and Community Engagement at Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

The Start of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA)

In 1967, a small group of community leaders established CHAPA. Their mission remains the same as it was then鈥攖o encourage the production and preservation of affordable housing. CHAPA鈥檚 work is guided by the belief that everyone should have safe, healthy, and affordable housing. The defines affordable housing as when 鈥渢he occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of gross income for housing costs, including utilities.鈥

And, according to Dana, affordable housing solutions must fit residents鈥 needs and budget. Healthy housing looks different depending on people鈥檚 varying needs. This includes the standard definition of healthy housing鈥斺攁s well as appropriateness for family size, mobility needs, and access to essentials like grocery stores, pharmacies, and public transit.

Addressing the Root Causes of Housing Inaccessibility

Figure 2. 1938 map of Boston area that used race as a key criterion when designating risk for mortgage lenders in neighborhoods. Photo via University of Richmond鈥檚 Digital Scholarship Lab/Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., 鈥淢apping Inequality,鈥 American Panorama, ed. via Boston Magazine

One of CHAPA鈥檚 approaches to increase affordable housing in the Commonwealth is to reduce racial patterns of segregation in Massachusetts communities. , much of which can be attributed to the historical practice known as redlining seen in Figure 2.

鈥淩EDLINING: A discriminatory practice that consists of the systematic denial of services such as mortgages, insurance loans, and other financial services to residents of certain areas, based on their race or ethnicity. Redlining disregards individual鈥檚 qualifications and creditworthiness to refuse such services, solely based on the residency of those individuals in minority neighborhoods; which were also quite often deemed 鈥榟azardous鈥 or 鈥榙angerous.鈥欌 ()

This harmful practice has left many Black families unable to build generational wealth the same way that white families have, producing and perpetuating a racial homeownership gap.

In addition to redlining, exclusionary zoning practices have also contributed to the Massachusetts housing crisis by preventing new homes from being built and limiting the types of housing that can be built in certain communities. To expand those who can access affordable housing, CHAPA is currently supporting the , which aims to create more housing opportunities for people who have historically been excluded. The 175 communities with stations outside of Metro Boston must zone at least one district 鈥渙f reasonable size鈥 for multi-family housing near stations. This zoning mandate will not require building new homes but rather and make it easier for more housing to be built. For example, the zoning mandate moves municipal zoning decision-making from groups of people who often don鈥檛 represent the broader needs of their community to the residents who will be most impacted by these decisions. .

Dana sees CHAPA鈥檚 constellation of approaches as crucial to advancing housing equity. 鈥淸T]here’s a tendency, I think, for folks to want to see one thing as the solution,鈥 Dana explained. 鈥淚s it rental assistance? Is it zoning changes? Is it state funding or one of these things? But it really does have to be this holistic approach, and that’s the attitude that we try to take at CHAPA, to put all those tools towards our efforts.鈥

Changing Local Housing Policies through the Municipal Engagement Initiative

Housing infrastructure and policy across the Commonwealth is highly variable. 鈥淲e have 351 cities and towns here in Massachusetts that all have their own form of government. They have their own zoning and planning boards,鈥 Dana shared. 鈥淎nd if we can’t move forward actions at that local level, we’re never going to meet our real housing needs as a state.” Advocacy efforts throughout the state can benefit from sharing their resources and best practices for driving housing policy change in their communities. CHAPA鈥檚 (MEI) serves as a resource for residents throughout Massachusetts. MEI informs Massachusetts residents about housing policy and increases learning across coalitions.

Two people holding an academic poster

Figure 3. Lily Linke and Dana LeWinter at the MACHHA Funds showcase in October 2022. Via @foot_notes_pod on Twitter

Created six years ago to target local housing policy, MEI is one of CHAPA鈥檚 largest programs. The impact of their work can already be seen at the local level. To date, MEI participant communities have (1) passed inclusionary zoning, which requires affordable units to be set aside when new market-rate development is built, (2) created Housing Trust funds, (3) passed housing production plans, and (4) advocated for their town-owned land to be set aside for affordable housing. Not only have these wins happened in individual towns, but Dana believes that MEI has created broader impact by emphasizing the importance of having adequate, diverse housing opportunities in every community.

MEI is funded in part by the Massachusetts Community Health and Healthy Aging (MACHHA) Funds, a collaborative project of the MA Department of Public Health (DPH) and 91少女 (91少女). Figure 3 shows Dana and colleague Lily Linke in 2022 at the MACHHA Funds showcase event holding their poster illustrating MEI鈥檚 impact.

CHAPA: Fostering Diverse, Sustainable Communities Through Planning and Community Development

MEI is just one of CHAPA鈥檚 many programs, all designed to improve housing access. Collectively through their portfolio of programs, they aim to create 200,000 new homes by 2030. Achieving this goal drives progress toward more equitable housing and social outcomes throughout Massachusetts.


Many thanks to Reena Dixit, former BU Activist Fellow, for her role in concept development and interview facilitation, as well as Christine Gordon-Davis and Erna Alfred Liousas for their editing support.