(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a monthly series focused on housing challenges in Massachusetts)
Flanked by the lieutenant governor and his top housing official, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker recently spoke candidly with a group of lawmakers about a housing crisis that has been growing for more than a decade in Massachusetts.
“Twelve to 14 years ago, this felt like it was a Boston-area, or an urban-core problem,” Baker said during a May 14 Joint Committee on Housing meeting. “It has since become a problem in every part of the commonwealth.”
The second-term governor is among hundreds of local and state lawmakers trying to address the crisis caused in part by a lack of affordable housing, which is fueling homelessness, leaving older adults feeling insecure, preventing younger generations from homeownership and exacerbating traffic.
Local and state officials, meanwhile, have struggled to agree on how best to address the related problems, and comprehensive housing reform efforts have fallen short in recent years.
Baker, of Swampscott, hopes to buck the trend this year with proposed legislation -- known as the Housing Choice Initiative -- which would overhaul local zoning ordinances, making it easier for developers to receive approval to build housing in communities across the state.
The bill would allow municipalities that want to rezone for denser, transit- or downtown-oriented housing development to do so with a simple majority vote -- more than 50 percent -- rather than the current two-thirds supermajority of 67 percent. The legislation would not mandate cities and towns to make any of these zoning changes, but Baker expects many would, saying the high barrier for authorization is currently the primary driver behind the housing crisis.
“Massachusetts is one of the only states in the country, and the only one in New England, to require a supermajority to change zoning laws in its communities,” Baker said in prepared remarks.
Below are examples of the types of projects that could be approved by a simple majority if the state Legislature passes Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed legislation.
1. Reducing dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes, to allow homes to be built closer together.
2. Reducing required parking ratios, which can lower the cost of building new housing and accommodate development on a smaller footprint.
3. Creating mixed-use zoning in town centers, and creating multifamily and starter home zoning in town centers, near transit and in other smart locations
4. Adopting “Natural Resource Protection Zoning” and “Open Space Residential Development,” which allow the clustering of new development while protecting open space or conservation land.
5. Adopting provisions for Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), which protects open space while creating more density in suitable locations.
6. Adopting 40R “Smart Growth” zoning, which provides incentives for dense, mixed-use development in town centers, near transit and in other “smart” locations.
7. Allowing accessory dwelling units or “in-law” apartments -- small apartments in the same building or on the same lot as an existing home.
8. Allowing for increased density through a special permit process promoting more flexible development.
9. (Added by the Joint Committee on Housing last session) special permit 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
The governor championed a similar bill last legislative session, which failed to garner enough support in the Legislature in part because opponents felt like Baker’s proposal fell short of addressing the underpinning issue of affordability. Similar concerns are being raised again this time around.
“We need to address zoning, but what I’m asking is to amend and expand the legislation to truly address affordability,” said state Rep. Mike Connolly, D-Cambridge.
Connolly, who also represents part of Somerville, recommended adding language and supporting alternative legislation to protect tenants and raise new revenue to address the growing issue of individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts. Last year, an estimated 20,068 people experienced homelessness in Massachusetts, representing a 20.6 percent increase compared to 2010, according to an annual report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Cambridge lawmaker, who grew up in public housing, cited a recently approved ballot measure known as Proposition C in San Francisco. The new law applies a 0.5 percent tax on businesses with more than $50 million in annual revenue, and proceeds go entirely toward addressing homelessness in the city. Budget analysts estimate the tax would generate between $250 million and $300 million in new revenue each year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“We need to do more to address affordability and we need to do more to address homelessness so the next kid growing up might be able to grow up in public housing like I did,” he said.
Not much in the governor’s proposed bill specifically mandates the development of affordable housing, and the state has no estimates for how much would be created if the legislation passes, making some lawmakers skeptical.
“I’m sure with a lot of the legislation we’re looking at there will be more housing produced, but what I’m worried about is whether there will be affordable housing produced for people who can afford it the least,” said state Rep. Peter Capano, D-Lynn.
Baker pushes back on this concern, saying onerous local zoning ordinance incentivize developers to build high-end housing because projects with higher rates of return make more sense if the permitting process is going to take a lot of time and money upfront.
By lowering the barrier for approval, he explained, the incentive to build all types of housing -- including affordable units -- will be greater.
“The reason why it feels like the traffic and activity is on the upper end of the market is because it is,” Baker said. “The reason it’s on the upper end of the market is because you have a two-thirds rule ... if you have to spend five years and $5 million getting something through a local zoning process, you want to be able to get something through that’s going to get your money back.”
The governor’s proposal has received support from local leaders across the state, including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, and a host of mayors, town managers and city and town councilors.
The supportive local leaders are tired of promising development projects regularly receiving majority support, but falling short of a supermajority, ultimately stymieing the development of much-needed housing.
In Salem, Mayor Kim Driscoll -- an advocate of the governor’s bill -- pointed to a recent effort to convert a church and city-owned property to new affordable housing units. The proposal was supported by City Council with a 7-4 vote, but ultimately failed, as 63.3 percent of the vote was short of the two-thirds requirement.
“Seven to four is normally a victory, but when it comes to zoning, it’s not,” Driscoll said.
But not all local groups are enamored by the idea of making it easier for developers to build, especially without requirements to create affordable housing.
Lisa Owens, executive director of City Life/Vida Urbana, a tenants’ advocacy group, argues stringent zoning laws can give people the tools to fight back against developers looking to run roughshod over a neighborhood with expensive housing developments.
If the governor really wants to address affordability issues, there must be incentives to build affordable units baked into the solutions, she said. And it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
“Zoning is not the solution to the urgency,” Owens said. “There are no incentives to produce 100 percent affordable housing, but that’s what the people in my communities need.”
How lawmakers ultimately decide on the governor’s proposal, along with other bills focused on addressing the housing crisis, will play out through the remainder of the session, and could depend on a host of other factors, including competing priorities, politics and even continued disagreement.
For Baker, solving the housing crisis will not be accomplished with one piece of legislation. But he believes zoning is the key to everything else. And the stakes are high.
“In order to maintain and grow the Massachusetts economy, we believe being able to live and work in the community you call home must remain within reach,” he said. “If we fail to create more affordable options, our workforce and businesses will eventually be forced to relocate.”
Eli Sherman is an investigative and in-depth reporter at Wicked Local and GateHouse Media. Follow him on Twitter @Eli_Sherman.