Officials reflect on demise of housing production bill

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BOSTON – Local officials told the Baker administration Tuesday they'll continue to push for a bill aimed at spurring housing production, which faltered when lawmakers failed to act on the issue before wrapping up their formal business for the year.

"We're very sorry that it didn't pass through the regular cycle, but I think collectively we'll continue to work on it to try and get something passed in informal sessions," Medford Mayor Stephanie Muccini Burke said at a Local Government Advisory Committee meeting at the State House. "Never I think before have we seen a coalition of the various groups, from your realtors to your builders to [the Massachusetts Municipal Association] and the state, just everyone on board with legislation. We all know that there's a dire need."

Filed by Gov. Charlie Baker in December 2017, the bill (H 4290) would lower the threshold required for local zoning changes from two-thirds to majority approval and create new housing growth incentives for municipalities.

Janelle Chan, undersecretary for housing and community development, kicked off discussion of the issue on Tuesday by noting Massachusetts has among the highest housing prices in the nation.

The median sale price for a single-family home hit $420,000 in June, according to The Warren Group, which said that was the first time the price had ever exceeded $400,000 in a given month. The median sale price in July was $407,000, up from $383,000 a year earlier, and Cassidy Murphy of The Warren Group said that increase reflects the state's "shrinking home inventory," an impediment that housing analysts have been citing for years.

Chan said housing production "lives and quite frankly dies at the local level."

Baker had repeatedly tapped his "housing choices" bill as one of his priorities for this legislative term, but House leaders did not bring to the floor for a vote before the July 31 end of formal sessions. They also did not surface for debate an alternative bill that had broad support among representatives.

Since then, Baker has voiced hope that his bill could still pass in the informal sessions the House and Senate will hold until the end of the year, during which any one lawmaker's objection can stop a bill. Roll call votes are not permitted during informal sessions and there is no debate.

"Whatever we can do to help with that, let us know," Ellen Allen, a member of the Norwell Board of Selectmen, said.

Allen said her town has a "huge waitlist" for senior housing and is working to convert a former police station property into 18 affordable units for seniors with help from a state grant. She hopes that project will help people see affordable housing development as "a good thing that fits in our community."

James Boudreau, the town administrator in Scituate, said the Baker administration's approach to housing development, with local officials' concerns taken into consideration, amounts to a "sea change."

"Too often in the past, administrations and people who want to promote affordable housing try to impose zoning changes on us," he said. "As an administrator who represented two small towns with no municipal sewerage, it was frustrating to try to explain to them what they called snob zoning and large lots, we called our toilets, because they had no idea what septic was. So to have an administration that's listening and making sure that we retain local control over our own destinies is huge."

Burke, the Medford mayor, flagged another housing issue where she suggested the state could get involved. She said most developers coming into her city only want to build rental units.

"No one wants to build condominiums or freestanding homes anymore," Burke said. "It's all about rental units, so to the degree that you can help us try to change that over and put some incentives in place, we would appreciate that. We want people to come and stay, not to just pass through the city for a couple years."