Oct 18, 2022 - News

How the census recount could affect housing in Massachusetts

Houses made out of money

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The U.S. Census Bureau's review of Boston's population count could affect what resources exist to help people afford surging rents in the throes of a housing crisis.

What's happening: Mayor Michelle Wu and other city officials have asked the Bureau to take a closer look at the city's college dorms, shared apartments and jails, which the mayor says were undercounted.

Catch up fast: Wu said the 2020 census undercounted Boston by at least 6,500 people, citing the Boston Planning and Development Agency.

  • Some 6,000 students and 500 people incarcerated in Suffolk County make up a majority of those who were undercounted, according to Wu.
  • Officials also said there was an unspecified number of foreign-born residents in housing units that census workers deemed vacant.

Details: Those uncounted residents aren't considered as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sends Section 8 vouchers to local public housing agencies to distribute.

Why it matters: Boston is one of the least affordable rental markets in the nation, to the point that some apartment listings have been subjected to bidding wars.

The federal government also uses census figures when distributing funds for Medicaid assistance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other forms of aid, local experts say.

What they're saying: "The additional funds for any other social supports for food, for heating, for child care and more also really matter to how rent-burdened families are able to live their daily lives," Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, tells Axios.

  • That also extends to federal transportation funding, she says. "We really can't separate transportation from housing. People want to live close to where they work and want a commute that is bearable."

Population estimates indirectly affect how area median income (AMI), fair market rents and other housing-related statistics are calculated.

  • If census data underestimates how many low-income residents the Boston area has, there's a chance it could affect the region's AMI estimates, Huang adds.

Plus: The feds plan to distribute infrastructure funding between fiscal 2022 through fiscal 2026 based on population estimates, among other factors.

  • Population estimates were also a factor in the distribution of federal COVID stimulus funds. The feds also sent Massachusetts more than $894 million from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program in recent years.

What's next: We wait for the results of the Bureau's review, which the agency has until Sept. 30, 2023 to release, per the agency's website.


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