As they fight to distinguish themselves in a crowded field, Boston’s mayoral hopefuls are united by a status that has eluded most of the people they seek to represent: They own their homes.
In a city where two-thirds of residents are renters and housing costs are through the roof, the major candidates say their journey to homeownership — and the stability it represents — informs their efforts to help more people put down roots here and build the wealth that can help them to stay.
Some bought when prices were lower. Some moved in with spouses who owned homes already. Most recalled the difficulty of coming up with enough for a down payment. And all say they recognize their relative good fortune.
Housing has emerged as perhaps the top public concern in the race, with 20 percent of respondents in a recent Suffolk University and Boston Globe poll saying the topic is the one most likely to determine how they vote. And the race comes as state and local officials are placing new emphasis on helping lower- and middle-income people buy homes.
That’s playing out in housing policy circles, and on the campaign trail in the race to succeed Martin J. Walsh. The former mayor made housing a key priority of his administration but focused less on whether people own or rent than on adding supply of all kinds.
“I can’t recall such a focus on homeownership, and the role that homeownership plays in neighborhood stability and closing the racial wealth gap,” Joe Kriesberg, chief executive of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, said of this year’s mayoral election.
It’s fueled by a growing recognition of racial gaps in homeownership.
Across Greater Boston, 66 percent of white households own their homes, according to a recent report by The Boston Foundation, compared with 35 percent of Black households and 30 percent of Latino households. In the city, where homeownership rates are lower generally, just 30 percent of Black households, and 15 percent of Latino households, own their homes, according to US Census data. That makes homeowners a distinct — and fortunate — minority.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey described homeownership as “a pathway to the middle class” and an essential tool for reversing decades of housing discrimination — particularly against Black people.
“We will have to invest a lot in homeownership to make up for that loss,” she said.
Janey cited her own experience purchasing her home in Roxbury in 1999. She was a single mother who had years earlier used Section 8 vouchers to help pay her rent, and owning a home helped her build equity as real estate values rose. She paid $103,600, according to Suffolk County property records, and purchased with the help of a first-time buyer’s program. In her budget this year, Janey more than tripled the size of the city’s first-time buyer assistance program, to offer up to $40,000.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell recalls shedding tears when she and her husband closed on the $350,000 purchase of their home in Mattapan in 2015. Since then, they’ve had two sons, and the importance of homeownership has only grown clearer.
“It meant a great deal to me,” she said. “It was really breaking cycles of poverty for my two boys.”
Campbell, who grew up in public housing in Roxbury and the South End, said she often wonders what might have happened if her family had been able to own a home in a part of the city that has seen huge increases in home values since she was a child.
When City Councilor Michelle Wu and her husband bought a $660,000 two-family home in Roslindale with another couple in 2015, she said they “scraped together every penny, every dollar to make that down payment.” A year later, they bought out the other couple’s share for $110,000 and assumed the rest of the mortgage, and now Wu’s mother lives in the second unit — spending time with her grandchildren every day in an example of the kind of intergenerational housing Wu believes the city should encourage.
Wu said she’ll always be grateful that her family bought into their neighborhood when they did.
“Just a few months later, this very part of my neighborhood would have been completely unaffordable for us,” Wu said. “This was years ago now, and it has only gotten more intense.”
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George grew up in a Dorchester triple-decker owned by her grandparents, who had emigrated from Poland. They were able to establish themselves in Boston by staying with another immigrant family in the so-called Polish Triangle until they could buy their own place. Now, Essaibi George lives a few blocks away, in a house her husband purchased for $182,000 in 1999, before they were married.
Essaibi George sees her story as an illustration of how homeownership can stabilize neighborhoods and families over decades.
“When we take the concerns about housing instability off the table, we create an opportunity for families, for kids in particular, for generations,” she said.
John Barros, who recently stepped down as Boston’s economic development chief to run for mayor, bought his first home in 2007 with his brother — across the street from where their mother lives in Roxbury. Later, he moved into a Dorchester home with his now-wife that she bought out of foreclosure in 2007, before they were married, for $425,000. One thing he learned, he said: Buying a house isn’t just about financial wherewithal, but social resources, too. And local government can help with that.
“You typically have to have some savings, and an awareness of the market and the importance of homeownership,” Barros said. Not all prospective first-time buyers have the tools to figure out the process on their own, he said, and city resources can help them “talk to the people who might know what programs are out there, what information might be helpful to put things together to make it happen.”
All the candidates have ideas for how to make homeownership more affordable and accessible, though their plans coalesce around several key points.
Generally, all call to increase funding for city-backed mortgage products, down payment assistance, and other programs to help people buy market-rate homes. And all believe the city should find creative ways to produce more for-sale housing at below market rates, with the help of public funding and perhaps city-owned land.
To pay for that, candidates are looking to pump more money into housing through measures such as fees on development and other taxes and city borrowing — tools the Walsh administration used as well. But the next mayor could have the advantage of money their predecessors did not enjoy.
Federal stimulus dollars are rolling in — Governor Charlie Baker has proposed spending $500 million on homeownership programs across the state — and more could be coming under an infrastructure plan being debated in Washington.
That money, however much ultimately lands in Boston, could mean that this fall’s winner will have a chance to make an even bigger dent in the city’s long-running housing crunch, said Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, executive director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, an affordable housing nonprofit in the South End.
“There’s great opportunity for the next mayor to really creatively think … critically about investing some of these funds to increase the production of homeownership units, and also to augment the down payment programs that already exist,” Calderón-Rosado said.
If the candidates succeed, more people in Boston might have stories like theirs.