We were encouraged to hear Gov. Charlie Baker plans to focus again on the state’s housing shortage, now that the election is behind him and he can see a clear path for four more years.
The housing shortage — or, more to the point, the scarcity of affordable housing — is a problem in need of big solutions. A push by Baker earlier this year came up short when legislation he backed failed to get through the House and Senate by the end of the formal legislative session.
Real estate groups point to the shrinking inventory of housing and blame restrictive zoning in some communities for that shortage. Loosen the zoning rules and you make it easier for builders to build and home buyers to buy and settle in.
The governor’s bill, H.4290, would have encouraged cities and towns to permit multifamily housing within a half mile of commuter rail stations, subways, ferry and bus stations, as long as at least 10 percent of the housing met federal affordability guidelines. Although the bill died in the Legislature, Baker said last week that housing bill is one unfinished piece of business he wants to get done. He expressed hope that lawmakers would take up the bill during informal sessions, which run through the end of the year. Passage of any major legislation is always difficult during informal sessions – the rules require a unanimous vote by those present in the House for a bill to pass – but the governor sounded dedicated enough to the idea that he’ll work to revive it in the next formal session of the Legislature in 2019.
It’s ironic that just last week in Newburyport, a developer and the MBTA finalized the sale of T land next to the commuter rail station to clear the way for 76 apartments, 25 percent of which would be affordable. The development is the first in the city’s 40R “smart growth district” which encourages housing close to public transportation – in this case, the train to and from Boston.
Earlier this year, a Boston Foundation report highlighted the growing need for more affordable housing in Massachusetts. Shortly after, Baker announced a goal to create 135,000 housing units across the state by 2035. The cost of housing is a major factor in slowing the state’s economy, making it difficult for younger people who find jobs but no affordable place to live, and discouraging companies that might be looking to relocate to the Bay State. After all, what’s the point of trying to capitalize on an educated, trained workforce if your workers won’t be able to find apartments or houses they can afford?
The struggle to reach agreement on a housing bill is partly over concerns by local-control purists who don’t want legislation that might take away some zoning control from local boards. But when a community comes to its own meeting of the minds over zoning an area to encourage smart growth, as in Newburyport’s case, good things can happen. Although groundbreaking for the 76-unit building near the train station is a long way off, agreeing on the goal – to create more affordable and market-rate apartments in the right location – smoothed the way.
Right now at the state level, there is momentum behind plans to address housing needs on a community-by-community basis. Last year the Baker administration created the Housing Choice program to give $10 million a year grants to cities and towns that adopt policies that promote development of housing. Some of the money came to North Shore and Merrimack Valley communities, including Lawrence, Beverly and Salisbury, for design and engineering work, or to aid completion of a project.
But incentives like those are only incremental. The Legislature will need to approve more funding and policy changes before we’ll see a real dent in the shortage of affordable housing.
It’s clear there are no easy solutions, but if Baker is serious about trying to get momentum on legislation that could pave the way for more housing that people can afford, we are all for it and will keep a close eye on the progress.