WORCESTER – During the 1980s and 90s as many as 50,000 new units of housing were built throughout the state each year. But during the past two decades that number has dropped to an average of about 10,000 units per year.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said that has left the state with a difficult challenge of being able to meet the demand for housing as the Massachusetts economy continues to grow.
To meet that challenge, she said changes are needed in some of the fundamental rules that govern new housing construction.
In particular, she said there is a need to update and modernize zoning regulations, with an eye toward giving municipalities an opportunity to modify those rules to better facilitate the construction of affordable housing, as well as developments with greater density, and those that are transit or downtown oriented.
“Clearly there has been a decline (in housing production), and we are not meeting the demand,” Ms. Polito told about 70 people Thursday at a Business and Government Forum presented by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“From an employer standpoint, if your employees can’t find a good place to live and one that is affordable, you might end up losing them,” she added. “This is a critical piece to the future success of our state.”
Gov. Charles Baker has filed legislation, called An Act to Promote Housing Choices, which calls for targeting zoning reform to encourage new housing production in the state. The administration’s goal is to have 135,000 new housing units produced by 2025.
Ms. Polito pointed out that one of the problems is that zoning changes in communities in Massachusetts require a two-thirds supermajority. She said that has often proved to be a significant obstacle for developers, and result in a housing project being stopped by just a handful of votes.
Massachusetts is currently one of just a few states in the country to require a supermajority to change local zoning.
Under the legislative proposal brought forward by the Baker-Polito administration, Ms. Polito said cities and towns would be given the opportunity to adopt certain zoning best practices by a simple majority for certain multifamily or mixed-use projects with at least 10 percent affordable units in locations near transit or, in centers of commercial activity within a municipality.
“We want to give communities the ability to adopt certain best practices for new housing development,” Ms. Polito said. “This legislation will not mandate cities and towns to make these zoning changes; rather we want it to be an important tool that they can use.”
Under the proposed legislation, other zoning changes that promote best practices for new housing construction that would qualify for a simple majority vote include:
• Allowing the development of accessory dwelling units, or “in-law” apartments.
• Approving Smart Growth or Starter Homes districts that put housing near existing activity centers.
• Allowing increased density through a special permit process.
• Allowing for the transfer of development rights and enacting natural resource protection zoning.
• Reducing parking requirements and dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes.
“Housing is an essential piece and an important tool to use for economic development,” Ms. Polito said. “Creating more housing will lead to more economic development and more jobs.”