Professors Debate Affordable Housing

Rent control and community diversity were the main topics up for discussion at the Cronkhite Center on Monday evening, as an intimate crowd of Harvard students, staff and Cantabrigians gathered for the Second Annual Issues of Affordable Housing Colloquium, hosted by the Housing Opportunities Program (HOP).

What was planned as a series of lectures soon became a lively discussion, as a trio of development experts debated their oftentimes contradictory proposals for improving the housing crisis in Cambridge.

“We basically have a hopeless case here for affordable housing,” said Richard Peiser, Spear professor of real estate development at the Graduate School of Design.

A former housing developer, Peiser pointed to expanding non-residential entities—including Harvard, MIT and firms vying for proximity to Cambridge’s burgeoning commercial district—as main culprits.

Peiser said that combined with a trend toward condo conversion, the circumstances mean the market is currently “unable to fix itself.”

William Apgar, a former U.S. assistant secretary of housing who recently returned to the Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, called the Cambridge residential situation “the classic Yogi Berra story—all those yuppies funneled in here expecting [diversity], and now it’s not the place they wanted it to be.”

Apgar maintained that well-designed, interventionist programs are the only sure-fire solution to a deteriorating situation.

“It’s very difficult to convince a group of voters to fund money for affordable housing,” he said.

His colleague, Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser, did not agree.

“If we value diversity, we should be willing to pay for it,” he retorted, “not steal from a bunch of landlords to make it so.”

Glaeser, after presenting an argument against programs of direct government intervention, suggested an alternative approach relying more heavily on incentives.

Under Glaeser’s model, communities meeting a threshold percentage of affordable housing would receive state subsidies. Those unable or unwilling to maintain the prescribed quota would be fined.

Whether they were advocating close government intervention or simple systems of incentives, however, the economists did agree on at least one point. The increase in median housing prices over time, they said, were the result of misdirected and overly-stringent building policies.

Building permits are issued sparingly, creating what Apgar called “a regulatory drag.”

“At the end of the day, it’s not that we didn’t have enough land, it’s that we made a choice not to build new constructions,” Glaeser said.

The panelists were also unanimous in their support for the contributions of HOP to the situation in Cambridge.

Founded eight years ago, HOP has prevented over 80 evictions by providing over $40,000 in loans.

HOP is a micro-credit organization, and thus gives mostly small loans to those individuals experiencing temporary financial difficulty.

“There is so much energy, but a limited bandwidth—it’s difficult to focus all this initiative and relate to peoples’ needs,” explained HOP advisor and Harvard Business School student Paul Pickering. “To me it’s just outrageous that there’s still homelessness in the richest country in the world.”