BOSTON — Fresh off a decisive re-election win, Gov. Charlie Baker is renewing his push to address a shortage of housing that experts say is holding back the state's economic growth.
Baker filed legislation earlier this year aimed at boosting the state's dwindling housing stock as part of an ambitious plan to add at least 135,000 new homes over the next five to seven years. The plan called for incentives to cities and towns for easing zoning that many say is at the root of the state's housing shortage.
His bill was voted out favorably by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Housing but failed to get through the House and Senate by the end of the formal legislative session.
The Baker administration says a limited supply of affordable housing is creating an overheated real estate market and pricing out many people who hope to buy or rent a home.
Baker has called the high cost and shortage of housing "the most serious long-term hurdle to continued economic growth" in post-recession Massachusetts.
His plan would allow town governing bodies to change zoning with a simple majority vote, removing a current state requirement of a two-thirds vote.
Speaking to reporters last week, one day after winning a second term, Baker mentioned the housing bill as one of several pieces of unresolved business. He expressed hope that lawmakers would take up the bill during informal sessions through the end of the year, and if not, suggested he would revisit the issue.
Last year, Baker created a "Housing Choice" program to give $10 million a year in grants to communities that adopt policies that promote housing development.
For example, Beverly got $150,000 to conduct feasibility, design and engineering work to redevelop the area around the Beverly Depot train station. Lawrence received $206,500 for work on the O’Connell South Common Park redevelopment, while Salisbury was awarded $225,000 to finish work at Partridge Brook Park.
Real estate groups say the shrinking inventory of housing is driving up home prices and edging many first-time homebuyers out of the market.
"Housing inventory is the lowest it has ever been," said Waltham-based broker Anthony Lamacchia, who chairs the government affairs committee at the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. "We need to get something done to remove local barriers to building more homes. The more restrictive the zoning is, the less inventory we are going to have."
In September, there were 4,942 single-family home sales in Massachusetts, an 8.1 percent decrease from September 2017, according to the Warren Group, which tracks real estate transactions. Meanwhile, the median single-family home price increased 4.7 percent to $379,450, up from $362,400 a year earlier.
"The dynamic between supply and demand continues to play out across Massachusetts," said Tim Warren, CEO of The Warren Group, in a statement. "Low inventory of homes for sale in a booming economy translates to lower sales volume and rising prices."
To be sure, there has been resistance to Baker's plan as lawmakers hammered out details of a final version of the bill in closed-door hearings over the past year.
Some legislators complained that Baker's proposal lacked provisions to increase the amount of affordable housing in the state, which has the sixth-highest rents in the country. Housing is deemed "affordable" when a tenant or owner pays no more than one-third of their income for housing costs, according to state officials.
A state law approved more than 45 years ago shifts the burden onto cities and towns to ensure at least one-tenth of local housing is affordable. Chapter 40B aimed to encourage affordable development by reducing zoning roadblocks, but housing advocates say it has done little to solve the problem, as towns have found a way around it.
Baker signed a $1.8 billion bond bill in May to provide funding and tax incentives to build more affordable housing throughout the state.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.