By Chris Lisinski / State House News Service
Rep. Mike Connolly has offered a preview of what House progressives may push for if and when the House finally puts a housing production bill on the floor for debate.
Gov. Charlie Baker and others have been calling for months on the Legislature to make it easier for zoning changes to pass at the local level as a way to help an increasingly strained housing market, but critics of his approach say it fails to address the major problem of housing affordability.
A Cambridge Democrat, Connolly has filed a multi-bill “Housing for All” package with measures that would revive the option of rent control, spend an additional $1 billion on affordable housing, and tax large businesses to finance a homelessness prevention fund.
Several advocates active in the housing policy debate on Beacon Hill said while they find the ideas striking, they are uncertain if supporters will be able to find enough political consensus to enact the changes. But for Connolly and other progressives involved, substantial reform is the only way to address a growing crisis.
“As progressives, as people on the left, we all agree when it comes to health care, the government is going to play a central role in making sure everyone has health care. When it comes to education, similarly, we all believe government should play a central role,” Connolly said. “Then, when we get to housing, we’re all over the place, and I think we rely too often on a market that isn’t working for most people. I think it would be really helpful to us to start putting housing on that same footing that we do for health care and education.”
One of the bills in the package, co-authored by Rep. Nika Elugardo, authorizes rent control -- a practice that voters banned in a 1994 ballot question -- but also would allow municipalities to implement tenant-protection measures, such as limiting the conditions under which evictions can occur, requiring landlords to accept up-front payments such as security deposits in installments, and regulating condominium conversions more strictly.
Connolly stressed that the Elugardo bill does not impose any mandates, instead allowing cities and towns to opt in to whichever restrictions, including rent control, they choose and then build the specific mechanics based on local needs.
“The particular dynamics and numbers of what that looks like in each community might be different, so we didn’t try to prescribe those numbers,” Connolly said.
Another local option proposed in one of the bills would allow communities to tax vacant units in large residential buildings, specifically targeting apartments and condos that wealthy tenants often rent or purchase but rarely visit. Participating towns and cities could charge a tax, calculated at 12.5 percent of the most recent rent, for units that have not been occupied for at least 90 days.
Some bills in the package do create statewide mandates, such as one requiring that communities zone for multifamily housing within a mile of public transit, an idea included in other legislation filed this session.
“That’s something that is positive that smart growth people agree about, that affordable housing people agree about,” said Steve Farrell, director of communications and policy at Metro Housing|Boston.
Progressive lawmakers who signed onto the package want to see significant state investment too, calling for additional spending to increase housing availability and protections for the most vulnerable residents.
One bill would authorize another $1 billion in bonding for housing production, building on the $1.8 billion lawmakers authorized last year. One quarter of the new money would be directed to public housing authorities, and the remainder would fund affordable housing development.
Targeting homelessness is a specific focus of Connolly’s. A different bill in the package -- sharing the same “Housing for All” name as the entire legislative agenda -- calls for a statewide “Homelessness Prevention and Reduction Fund” that would offer subsidized stable housing, mental health treatment and other support services to at-risk families, all funded by a tax on large companies.
The tax, an additional 0.25 percent on gross business receipts above $50 million, is an idea that Connolly said was directly inspired by the Proposition C measure San Francisco voters passed in November.
“Even though that can be an up-front cost and investment, in the long run, when you consider the effects on health, a lot of people think that would be the most effective and efficient way to address homelessness,” Connolly said.
Connolly said the effort could carry secondary benefits as well, helping reduce the severity of addiction, poverty and other social issues that are often magnified by homelessness.
The dozen-plus progressive lawmakers who cosponsored some or all of Connolly’s housing bills face questions about how feasible the proposals actually are. Even Baker’s comparatively modest legislation to change the local majority needed for zoning changes from two-thirds to 51 percent, which has support from a range of advocacy groups and many lawmakers, has yet to go before the Legislature for a full vote despite first being filed last session.
Leaders of several organizations that work on housing and related issues spoke in muted terms about the package. While interested in hearing debate on the proposals, they stopped short of outright endorsing bills.
“It’s not entirely clear what we have broad stakeholder consensus around, which is why there needs to be more discussion and consensus-building,” said Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “Rep. Connolly is trying to push the conversation, which is a good thing, but will it push that far? I’m not sure.”
But supporters say that incremental solutions will not bring relief soon enough, pointing to growing prices and lagging supply in the housing market.
Since 2010, Massachusetts added 245,000 jobs but only 71,600 new housing units, and most communities around Boston restrict zoning for affordable homes that can fit multiple tenants, according to a report released this month. Another study earlier in the year found that there are more than twice as many families on the lowest level of the income scale as there are units of housing availale and affordable to them.
“This package goes farther than anything we’ve seen so far, and we welcome this,” said Lisa Owens, executive director of working-class advocacy group City Life / Vida Urbana. “In fact, we want to see more legislators step up and take bold action like this because we’re in a crisis.”