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How to find affordable housing in the Boston area

Try these methods for landing subsidized units in Cambridge, Somerville, Boston, and elsewhere

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The Boston area is one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, so finding affordable housing can be especially challenging yet acutely necessary.

The numbers don’t lie. In Boston proper, the median sales price for houses was up 6.4 percent in January 2020, to $655,000, and the median for condos was up 9.4 percent, to $700,000, according to figures from the Greater Boston Association of Realtors and the Warren Group, a local research firm.

And it’s not much better for buyers beyond the city; the regional average for a house was up 2.7 percent, to $605,000, and for condos up 2.2 percent, to $577,500.

So! How to maneuver through this market-rate nightmare and into subsidized digs? It’s not easy—know that up front. There is understandably a lot of competition for available affordable housing; and the composition of the region doesn’t help. It might be worth limiting your search to Boston proper as well as to its larger neighbors to better your odds.

There is also the possibility of state assistance (more on that later). Here are a few relatively easy ways to get started looking for affordable housing in Boston and its neighbors.


Boston

The city of nearly 700,000 has a mercifully convenient clearinghouse for those looking for affordable housing for either sale or rent. It’s called Metrolist, and users can search it via four affordable opportunities: lotteries and resales; available rental listings; and affordable properties. And landlords and other owners can list their properties through Metrolist.

Once through one of these portals, there are further search options, including via neighborhood and price points—and, crucially, the incomes necessary for securing affordable housing.

And one important note on Metrolist and Boston affordable housing in particular: The city uses “affordable housing” as what it describes as “a relative term.” The properties listed and searchable through Metrolist can vary from what seems like downright market-rate, the sort only mildly subsidized—apartments with free months of rent, for instance, or fixer-uppers offered at a sales discount—and to units that the city or the state genuinely subsidizes via vouchers and artificially low costs.

Cambridge

One of Boston’s largest neighbors with more than 113,000 residents, Cambridge also has a catchall of sorts for finding affordable for-sale and rental housing.

Find out what income and asset thresholds you need to meet for the former here, where you’ll all find the necessary application forms. For most affordable resales in Cambridge, the income threshold is 50 percent to 100 percent of the median income of an area of the city (usually abbreviated AMI). The site also provides a handy video explaining affordable housing in Cambridge.

As for affordable rental housing in Cambridge, the application forms can be found here, as can an explanation of what’s available.

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Somerville

This city of about 81,000 does not have any single clearinghouse for affordable housing, but it does boast several easily searchable explainers and databases. One of the best databases is simply one that tracks housing lotteries for different properties—which is exactly what it sounds like: Qualified residents apply for subsidized housing and then find out via a lottery.

Somerville also has three main programs to aid first-time homebuyers who face affordability challenges (and who doesn’t in the Boston-area housing market?). One helps with up to $5,000 in aid for closing costs; another provides down payment assistance of up to 15 percent of the purchase price, and the third pays up to $5,000 in down payment assistance and help with the closing costs. Find out more here.

Chelsea, Revere, and Everett

In these three immediate Boston neighbors to the north and northeast, affordable housing is available only to individuals and families with low or what’s termed extremely low incomes.

You can search through the Chelsea Housing Authority, the Revere Housing Authority, and the Everett Housing Authority for options and applications. Most of the options are going to be through federal and state programs, and not necessarily through the municipalities themselves.

Newton and Brookline

These two municipalities to the west of Boston totaling roughly 148,000 souls each have sign-ups for updates on affordable housing options and lotteries—but the pickings are slim. Newton, for instance, had no affordable rental or sales options at the start of March, and only one upcoming rental option, a future 140-unit rental at Washington and Walnut streets. Brookline had zero sales opportunities and only one affordable rental opportunity.

Neither municipality is known for its affordability to begin with, market-rate or otherwise.

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