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Initiative on Cities study finds affordable housing to be greatest issue for U.S. mayors

A survey released Wednesday showed that affordable housing is among the most pressing concerns for urban mayors throughout the country, as a part of Boston University’s annual Initiative on Cities Menino Survey of Mayors.

The survey is the only nationally representative and scientifically rigorous survey of U.S. mayors, according to IoC Associate Director Stacy Fox. The survey examines the most relevant and pressing issues affecting urban communities every year, as the topics covered by the Menino Survey change with the times.

This year, Fox said, the survey focused heavily on housing affordability, climate change and mayoral relations with federal and state governments.

Maxwell Palmer, a BU political science professor and a co-principal investigator for the study, said the survey was designed to reveal what issues big-city mayors believe to be most important to their cities.

Palmer said economic forces drive concerns over affordable housing around the country, and often determine who lives where.

“Affordable housing is a problem because [the] increasing demand (especially for multi-bedroom family housing) is much higher than the supply and construction of new housing,” Palmer wrote in an email. “As prices and rents increase, current residents are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods.”

Katherine Levine Einstein, another professor of political science at BU and co-principal investigator for the study, said she was surprised that over half of the mayors surveyed cited housing costs as a top reason that people leave their cities.

“[Affordable housing] outpaced other things like jobs, schools [and] public safety,” Einstein said.

Einstein said problems persist in Boston over building more affordable housing or providing low-income families the finances they need to pay for housing.

“The question is how do you maintain affordability of those units?” Einstein said. “One of the things the city of Boston has done on this is they require a certain percentage of units in these big new developments to be affordable, so it mandates an affordability percentage.”

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh was appointed as the housing chair for the United States Conference of Mayors Community Development and Housing Committee on Wednesday. Einstein said she believes this will allow Walsh to take aggressive political action on housing.

“He may be able to drive the organization’s mission on housing and sort of work with interest groups to try to get the federal government to support the provision of greater affordable housing,” Einstein said.

Matthew Ciaramitaro, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences who currently lives on campus, said he’s considered housing costs in Boston when thinking about moving off-campus.

“There isn’t a lot of affordable housing,” Ciaramitaro said. “You really have to get far away from campus if you want to be able to afford somewhere to live.”

Einstein said Boston could lose a lot of young, useful talent without affordable housing.

“A lot of people graduating from great schools like Boston University are going to maybe choose to live elsewhere because they don’t want to pay $2,500 for a one-bedroom apartment or they can’t pay that,” Einstein said. “The biggest problem is that you lose out on people who can contribute to the economic productivity and social vitality of your communities.”

Emma Lincoln, a freshman in the School of Education, said she thinks it’s important for people to be able to find a place that’s affordable and in the area they work or go to school in.

“For students and people starting off in Boston, it can be tough for sure to find somewhere to be and you can’t live outside of Boston and rely on the T because that can be tough in the winter,” Lincoln said. “It is important that [affordable housing] is available to people.”

Esther Kwon, a junior in the College of Communication, said she lives off-campus because it is cheaper than the on-campus options BU offers. She said the accumulation of tuition costs and university fees can be a determinant in people’s decisions when they search for places to live.

“As a college student you’re already racking student debt, so on top of that you don’t want to increase debt with housing,” Kwon said. “You are trying to save as much as possible, so it [affordable housing] is important.”

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