Finding a path forward on housing
A legislative committee listened to over six hours of testimony last Tuesday on Governor Charlie Baker’s “Housing Choice” legislation and more than two dozen additional housing and zoning bills. Most who testified supported the Administration’s proposal to make it easier for communities to adopt zoning and special permits that meet smart growth criteria, by reducing the approval requirement from a super-majority to a simple majority vote. At the same time, many hearing witnesses also called for action to expand affordable housing and tenant protections. The committee must now find a path forward.
The Governor personally appeared, along with Lt. Governor Karyn Polito and several other high level administration officials, to make a case for the Housing Choice legislation. You can find the text and video of their remarks here. Governor Baker sent an important signal, “This is not the end of the conversation on housing.”
The debate is critical for all those concerned about the housing crisis. We urge you to make your views known to the committee—the end of this article provides more info on that!
The Governor’s bill, which would apply to every municipality except Boston, would allow a simple majority of local voters to pass zoning changes that promote housing production in smart growth locations. It would do the same for applications to build projects by special permit in such locations if at least 10% of the units are affordable.
Massachusetts is among a small number of states that require a 2/3 majority for every zoning change. The 2/3 majority is a huge barrier, particularly in suburban towns outside Boston, and is a major reason why there is such market pressure in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville.
Last year, the legislature did not pass any housing production bill to address rising home prices and rents in Greater Boston, despite support for the Governor’s bill among stakeholders that usually don’t agree, such as the municipal and real estate trade associations, and smart growth and housing advocates. The bill has even stronger support this year, but also faces backlash from low-income residents in Boston and elsewhere who say the bill will not stop today’s overheated market from pushing them out of their neighborhoods.
To make that point, Right to the City, Life/Vida Urbana, Neighbor-to-Neighbor and a number of other social equity groups mobilized low-income residents, particularly from communities of color in Boston and Springfield. Many of the organizers testified against the Governor’s bill and urged the committee to pass tenant protections and a real estate transfer tax for affordable housing.
Several witnesses proposed a joint task force on housing as a path forward.
Early in the hearing, Senator Harriette Chandler, who served as Senate president last year, told the committee that she filed a bill proposing a task force so that Housing Choices could be passed in 2019 and the task force could come back in 2020 with solutions addressing other aspects of the housing crisis. Representatives Marjorie Decker from Cambridge and Andy Vargas from Haverhill made the same pitch, arguing that this would provide a mechanism for a comprehensive, data-driven review of housing solutions, including tenant protections and more affordable housing.
The last witness, our executive director Andre Leroux, urged the committee to incorporate such a task force into the Governor’s bill. Alternatively, he said the committee could recommend each separately but as companion bills. The legislature has to show that work on tenant protections and affordable housing will continue, Leroux emphasized.
Procedurally, the next step is “reporting” a bill for further action to the Ways & Means Committee in the House or Senate.
The busy hearing also included testimony on 28 other housing production bills. One of those bills—which we strongly support—would make it easier to create an accessory dwelling unit within the main structure of a single-family home. Representatives Stephan Hay of Fitchburg and Michelle Ciccolo of Lexington and Leroux testified in favor of the bill. As Leroux noted, if New Hampshire can pass a state law on accessory dwelling units, why can’t Massachusetts!
Click here for the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance testimony on the Housing Choices bill.
Click here for our comprehensive testimony on the other bills considered during the hearing.
We urge you to tell the chairs of the Joint Committee on Housing that you:
1) support passing the Governor’s Housing Choices bill (House 3507) this year,
2) want more done but support using a joint housing task force to set up action in 2020, and
3) support passing the accessory dwelling unit bill (House 1277).
Email the House and Senate chairs: