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Residential overcrowding has increased regionwide as housing affordability declines.

By Luc Schuster

December 14, 2022

Every family deserves decent, affordable housing located relatively close to where they work, learn, play, shop or worship. Through this year’s Greater Boston Housing Report Card, we analyzed a range of indicators for how we as a region are doing on these fronts. While we found a few signs of progress—like modest increases in multifamily housing production—many troubling trends that have been highlighted in previous Report Cards continued to this one. We found, for instance, that 45 percent of renter households in Greater Boston are housing cost burdened (i.e., spending 30 percent or more of their income on housing costs), and more than half of Black and Latino renter households are housing cost burdened.

One consequence of this decline in housing affordability, which was not included in the Report Card this year, is that more people are now squeezing into overcrowded housing. The figure below looks at growth in the number of renter-occupied housing units with more than one occupant per room, with data showing significant increases regionwide.

These numbers are based on survey estimates from the American Community Survey, and margins of error are especially large for Essex, Norfolk and Plymouth Counties, which have fewer renter households to survey (this dynamic is in part a consequence of long-standing exclusionary housing policies in these areas that prioritize the construction of owner-occupied housing stock). Nevertheless, the trend is clear, with residential overcrowding increasing significantly since 2010, especially in Suffolk County (Boston, Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop), where it increased roughly 90 percent in just 11 years.

Overcrowding is troubling for a variety of reasons, and the recent Boston Globe article Life in a single room: One immigrant family’s epic quest for a home on the margins of Boston’s housing crisis provides some compelling stories of its human toll. People can lose a sense of dignity when they lack even modest space for themselves. It can be harder for children in school to focus on homework or online learning. And many people in overcrowded housing live there under informal sublet arrangements that do not provide standard tenant protections necessary for reasonable housing stability. There’s also a public health dimension, of course, with COVID infections having spread faster in neighborhoods with more overcrowded housing, like in Chelsea and East Boston.

A small portion of this aggregate increase might have been expected due to overall regional growth from 2010 to 2021. But this only explains a small part of the story. When looking instead at the share of all rental units that are overcrowded in Suffolk County, for instance, the increase is still 78 percent (from roughly 3.00 percent in 2010 to 5.32 percent in 2021).

The years since 2010 represent a period of increased demand for housing in the region, as the economy grew and more people wanted to live and work here. But housing construction has not kept pace with increased demand, leading to rapid price increases that have caused all manner of consequences—some longstanding residents moving to lower-cost parts of the country; others remaining in the region, but moving away from the urban core; some low- and moderate-income families spending larger shares of their household budgets to pay rents that are increasing faster than their incomes; and others choosing to squeeze into overcrowded homes so that rental costs can be spread across more people.

At the end of the day, residential overcrowding is a downstream consequence of our regional housing crisis. Anything we do to encourage the production of more housing—especially diverse housing types like modest multifamily housing projects, triple deckers, accessory dwelling units (also called backyard cottages or granny flats), cheaper single room occupancy projects, etc.—will help ease the pressure on people to move into overcrowded housing. But these changes will take years to translate into significantly reduced rents. In the meantime, we need to ensure that we’re providing sufficient subsidized housing to help lower-income families who need support. As the subsidized housing sections of the Greater Boston Housing Report Card found, some Metro Core communities are providing a decent share of subsidized housing, but supply still falls far short of demand. Furthermore, state and federal rental assistance programs ramped up during the height of the pandemic and helped alleviate housing instability for several months, but that funding is phasing out quickly, even though need clearly remains.

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