FXB Health and Human Rights Fellow Submits Testimony in Support of Rent Control

Masschusetts State House in winter with headshot of Dr. Jourdyn Lawrence

Today, FXB Health and Human Rights Fellow Dr. Jourdyn Lawrence submitted written testimony in support of Massachusetts Legislature bills H.1378/S.886 (An Act Enabling Local Options for Tenant Protections) and H.1440/S.889 (An Act Relative to the Stabilization of Rents and Evictions in Towns and Cities Facing Distress in the Housing Market). The bills aim to establish rent control and increase tenant protections.

Lawrence, a social epidemiologist, shared recent research and her expertise on the public health and societal benefits of stable and affordable housing.

Read her submitted testimony:

Dear Members of the Joint Committee on Housing,

Thank you to the Joint Committee on Housing, especially the Joint Committee’s co-chairs Senator Keenan and Representative Arciero, for the opportunity to submit written testimony in support of H.1378/S.886 and H.1440/S.889. My name is Jourdyn Lawrence, and I am a social epidemiologist and postdoctoral Health and Human Rights Fellow at the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. I am writing today, not on behalf of the institution, but as a public health researcher and Boston resident committed to building toward a more just and equitable society.

Renters comprise nearly 40% of households in Massachusetts,1 with estimates from the Joint Center of Housing Studies suggesting that 48% of Massachusetts renters are cost-burdened (spending greater than 30% of their income on rent).2 The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Massachusetts is approximately $36 an hour,1 in a state with a minimum wage of $13.50. This “housing wage” increases as proximity to larger cities increases. Rent control would offer protection from displacement by allowing for an increased availability of affordable housing and provide protection from unpredictable rent increases. Work by Arcaya and colleagues found that COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts were greater among those cost burdened by housing and residing in overcrowded households (often a byproduct of unaffordable housing3,4).5 These findings suggest that unaffordable housing remains a driver of adverse population health outcomes.

Evidence suggests that access to affordable housing would yield improvements to several factors associated with health and general wellbeing – including lower exposure to household crowding, housing stability (less vulnerability to evictions or frequent relocation due to unaffordability), and increased social cohesion (connectedness to the community and fewer disruptions to social networks).3,6,7 Several health benefits are associated with housing stability, specifically reductions to financial stress, improved mental and physical health, and greater access to health care services.3,6,7 Research has found that renters living in affordable housing often have increased discretionary income, facilitating access to prescriptions, medical care, and other health and life-affirming expenses.6,7

From a social justice orientation, rent control would provide a disproportionate benefit to historically marginalized populations and individuals most vulnerable to unpredictable and increasing rent prices (e.g., low- or fixed-income households, immigrant households, Black renters, and other renters of color). This is particularly true given that marginalized populations are more likely to rent due to historical and contemporary structural barriers to homeownership, inequities in compensation, and other socio-political factors.8 In Massachusetts, nearly 57% of Black renters and 55% of Hispanic/Latinx renters are cost-burdened and remain at greater risk of eviction as a result.2 By repealing the ban on rent control, BIPOC communities become less vulnerable to gentrification and displacement, can remain in proximity to places of employment and community, and gain access to resources that promote health and wellbeing. The public health and social benefits of stable and affordable housing are plentiful and support of H.1378/S.886 and H.1440/S.889 provide opportunities to achieve such gains.

While rent control is a crucial policy and step toward promoting housing stability, it must be combined with policies and efforts that address additional structural barriers to affordable housing, including raising the minimum wage, improving access to units by populations most in need, ending housing discrimination, revising land-use policies, and expanding access to housing assistance. I urge you to report H.1378/S.886 and H.1440/S.889 out of the committee with a favorable vote as soon as possible to improve the wellbeing of communities most in need of protection from displacement and most vulnerable to the negative consequences of inaction.

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Footnotes:

  1. National Low Income Housing Coalition. Out of Reach 2021: Massachusetts. https://reports.nlihc.org/oor/massachusetts
  2. Joint Center of Housing Studies. Renter Cost Burden. https://www.jchs.harvard.edu/ARH_2017_cost_burdens_by_state_total
  3. Lubell J, Crain R, Cohen R. The positive impacts of affordable housing on health. Washington, DC: Center for Housing Policy and Enterprise Community Partners. https://icma.org/sites/default/files/302173_HousingandHealth.pdf
  4. Bruen C. How Much is Overcrowding a Factor in COVID-19 Risk. National Multifamily Housing Council. 2020. https://www.nmhc.org/research-insight/research-notes/2020/how-much-is-overcrowding-a-factor-in-covid-19-risk/
  5. Arcaya MC, Nidam Y, Binet A, Gibson R, Gavin V. Rising home values and Covid-19 case rates in Massachusetts. Social Science & Medicine. 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7420948/
  6. Taylor LA. Housing and Health: An Overview of The Literature. Health Affairs Health Policy Brief. 2018. https://www.healthaffairs.org/do/10.1377/hpb20180313.396577/full/
  7. Maqbool N, Ault M, & Viveiros J. The impacts of affordable housing on health: A research summary. Center for Housing Policy. 2015. https://nhc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Impacts-of-Affordable-Housing-on-Health-A-Research-Summary.pdf
  8. Pager D, Shepherd H. The sociology of discrimination: Racial discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and consumer markets. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2008. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2915460/pdf/nihms222293.pdf