A New Year’s Resolution: Make Mass More Affordable: Steps Taken in 2023 Only Nibbled Around the Edges of the Problem

By Jonathan Cohn

In the coming days, people across Massachusetts are going to participate in an annual end of year tradition: creating New Year’s resolutions.

For many, the New Year’s resolution is forgotten by the end of January (as the pile of unused gym memberships can attest to). But reflecting on the past year and setting goals for the new one is still a vital task. in that spirit, I would like to offer one for Gov. Healey and the Legislature: actually tackle our state’s affordability crisis.

If you listen to our elected officials, you would think that they already were. Indeed, earlier this year, during the debates around and promotion of Gov. Healey and the Legislature’s tax package, the buzzword from everyone was “affordability.” Whether in press releases or tweets, the message was clear: These tax cuts will make Massachusetts more affordable for all residents.

But will they?

An expansion of the renter’s deduction will yield many tenants a $50 tax credit, which at most would cover a modest meal out for two, or part of one month’s rent increase. Families with young children will see the child tax credit go up by $260, which, of course, is still less than the cost of one week of child care.

The unfortunate reality is that a sizable percentage of the $1 billion tax package was regressive, disproportionately benefiting the already well-off and costing the state significant resources that could otherwise be used to support low-income people and the middle class. 

We will lose $213 million each year in potential investments due to a rollback of the estate tax, as multimillion-dollar estates will each receive almost $100,000 in tax breaks. The cut in the tax on short-term capital gains (a $65 million annual giveaway) will enrich speculators and day traders, and the “single sales factor” corporate giveaway, which lets multinational corporations save on their Massachusetts tax bill, will siphon off another $79 million. Our Commonwealth is already affordable for the people who will benefit from these tax cuts.

To truly make Massachusetts more affordable for all residents requires more ambition. Here are a few suggestions.

Bring Down the Cost of Child Care: Massachusetts has the most expensive child careof any state. Infant care for just one child would take up almost one quarter of a median family’s income in Massachusetts, triple the affordability standard set by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Indeed, by this standard, only about 1 in 20 Massachusetts families can afford infant care, and it is entirely out of reach for child care workers themselves. 

The Common Start bills offer a great framework for addressing the crisis by stabilizing child care providers to ensure high-quality care, thereby incentivizing greater pay for early educators and greater accessibility of care for families, and greatly increase financial assistance, especially for the low- and middle-income families that need it most.

Make Higher Ed Debt-Free: Among the many exciting investments from the voter-approved Fair Share Amendment, which raised taxes on income over $1 million per year, was the $62 million expansion of financial aid for public college and university students. Because of this, more students will be able to graduate from our public colleges and universities debt-free. But we can and must do more. Just between 2009 and 2021, the average student debt rose 52 percent for four-year graduates and 62 percent for community college graduates. Passing the Cherish Act would continue this momentum toward fully debt-free public higher education and ensure that faculty and staff are paid well so that they can afford to live here too.

Lift the Ban on Rent Control: Healey’s Affordable Homes Act has a number of excellent components, even if there are ways to improve upon them still – provisions like a real estate transfer fee local option, eviction sealing protections, allowing for accessory dwelling units as of right, and a robust increase in investment in affordable housing. But the unfortunate reality is that many of our state’s residents might not still be here to see the benefits. 

Already, almost half of Greater Boston renters pay more than a third of their household income toward housing costs, and as Massachusetts is leading the nation in rent increases, such rent levels are unsustainable. Although Massachusetts outlawed rent control several decades ago, there is a growing movement to bring back this key tool for our housing crisis. Municipalities like Boston, Somerville, and Brookline have already passed home rule petitions expressing an interest in stabilizing rents at the local level. We should let them.

Raise the Minimum Wage: In 2018, Massachusetts set an example for other states and the country by passing a $15 minimum wage. But $15 has lost significant purchasing power due to the rising cost of food, utilities, rent, and other basic necessities, not to mention that it was never a living wage in the first place. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, a living wage for a single adult in Massachusetts with no children would be $21.35 per hour When children enter the picture, that threshold for meeting basic needs gets higher. Bringing the minimum wage closer to a living wage by raising it to $20 per hour would put more money in working people’s pockets.

Throughout 2023, we constantly heard elected officials talk about the need for tax cuts to make Massachusetts more “competitive,” pushing a debunked myth that we were about to see an exodus of the well-off due to the Fair Share Amendment and the overall tax landscape. The risk we really face is that our graduates won’t be able to stay here, that young couples won’t be able to make a family here, and that working people will be displaced from one neighborhood to the next before being driven out of the state entirely. All of this is avoidable with good policy.

So let’s hope – and pressure – our elected officials to embrace those policies. And to not give up on a New Year’s Resolution too soon.

Jonathan’s opinion piece was published in the December 27th issue of CommonWealth Beacon.

Jonathan is the secretary of the Ward 4 Dems and the policy director of Progressive Mass.

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