A progressive case for Housing Choice


For more than ten years, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and our member organizations have been leading voices for progressive zoning reform on Beacon Hill. Our efforts to improve outdated development laws have included proposals to make it illegal for cities and towns to discriminate in zoning and permitting decisions, to require all communities to build their fair share of apartments, and to allow accessory apartments across the state.

In 2016, we worked closely with the state Senate to pass a sweeping zoning and housing bill that included all of those remarkable items after a difficult and lengthy debate. Yet more than two years later, none of it has been enacted into law because some of the provisions were steadfastly opposed by real estate interests, while others were equally opposed by some lobbyists for cities and towns. We were deadlocked.

Eighteen months ago, Governor Baker unveiled a proposal to help break the stalemate. The Housing Choice initiative included a program to incentivize communities to build more housing—which is already being implemented—as well as a companion piece of legislation, called the Housing Choice bill, which did not get taken up for a vote last session.

We know there is much to be done. But the Governor’s bill itself represents a significant and progressive step forward in land-use and housing reform. In our view, here are some of the benefits:

1. It creates a powerful incentive for private developers to build affordable housing.

In Greater Boston (and probably elsewhere in the state), most multifamily housing (3+ units) is built through “special permits,” which can be unpredictable, expensive, and difficult to secure, requiring a supermajority local vote to be approved. The Housing Choice bill allows developments including at least 10% affordable housing in smart growth locations to be approved by a simple majority. This would be a powerful new incentive for market-rate developers to include affordable units in their projects that would not be built otherwise. This will be especially helpful in encouraging developers to propose new mixed-income housing in the many towns that have no affordable housing requirements and limited number of apartments. This provision was recommended by the Alliance and incorporated into the bill by the Housing Committee, chaired by Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Joe Boncore, before it was reported out favorably. Governor Baker chose to include this provision in the Housing Choice bill he filed this year.

2. It will help more towns in Massachusetts produce their fair share of housing, gradually reducing the pressure on overheated communities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

More communities need to step up and build the housing that we all need. In the seven years after the Great Recession in 2008, Boston alone built 37% of all the apartments constructed in Massachusetts. Together, the top ten cities and towns produced nearly two-thirds of the state’s apartments. Yet these are the same places suffering the most from the housing crisis. To address the long-term dysfunction of our housing market, we need more of the surrounding communities to do their part and house a fair share of the region’s growth. However, it is notoriously difficult to pass zoning and permitting for apartments in many communities even with the support of planning staff and their elected and appointed local officials. This is especially true in communities with a Town Meeting form of government. The Housing Choice bill will restore majority-rules democracy and level the playing field across the region.

3. It incentivizes climate-friendly development.

The Housing Choice bill includes locational criteria that will make it easier for municipalities to update their zoning and allow more apartments and mixed-use in smart growth locations like neighborhood and town centers, transit-accessible districts, and existing commercial corridors, but not in locations that encourage traffic-inducing sprawl. Furthermore, the bill allows communities to adopt Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs and promotes Open Space Residential Design, which clusters homes and preserves open space. Just as importantly, Housing Choice makes it easier for cities and towns to bring their parking requirements in line with economic and environmental reality. Limiting asphalt can help reduce flooding, while reducing unnecessary parking makes development less expensive and discourages air and water polluting sprawl.

4. It supports age-friendly, walkable neighborhoods.

Housing Choice makes it easier for cities and towns to adopt accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinances, which allow homeowners to create small, affordable housing units in their single-family homes. The AARP and public health organizations have identified ADUs as a critical priority for seniors because they allow family members or caretakers to live on site so that seniors can age in place. But ADUs benefit everyone, because more families need flexible, multi-generational living arrangements, and they allow homeowners—especially seniors on fixed incomes—to collect modest rental income while dealing with with increases in the cost of living. Additionally, by encouraging compact development in smart growth locations as mentioned above, zoning changes and special permits facilitated by Housing Choice can help communities become more walkable over time—the cheapest, most equitable way to get around and maintain an active lifestyle.

5. It begins to address an underlying cause of our state’s racial and economic segregation.

The last two times we had an affordable housing crisis in our region, we solved it with waves of “double-deckers” and “triple-deckers” early in the 1900s; and then with apartment buildings in the 1960s and 70s. These solutions, which housed large numbers of low-income residents and immigrants, are impossible today because of restrictive zoning. I would contend that single-family zoning requiring large lots is the number one driver of racial and economic segregation in Massachusetts. Not only does it make homeownership too expensive for renters, it has throttled apartment production—we build only half of the apartments that we used to 40 years ago. This housing market dysfunction lies at the heart of racial wealth inequality and lack of social mobility. Housing Choice will enable renters and people of color, a minority of the population in almost every municipality, to have a more meaningful voice in development decision-making and open up more neighborhoods where they could live.

6. Without progress on this bill, political leaders and major stakeholders are unlikely to tackle the more challenging issues of affordability, displacement pressures, tenant protections, and transit justice.

The Governor took a risk making housing and zoning a priority, and we applaud and encourage him for that stance. Of course, we’ve been clear that we need to do much more to tackle the housing crisis in our communities.

Here are three additional victories that are within reach this session:

  1. There is a historic opportunity to secure new revenue for affordable housing. The House has proposed increasing deeds fees on real estate transactions to increase the state’s match to communities participating in the Community Preservation Act, unlocking millions of dollars that could be used for local affordable housing projects.

  2. More significantly, we can build on Gov. Baker’s climate proposal to leverage real estate transactions to generate funds for climate adaptation projects. Affordable housing should be part of the equation and the transfer fees could potentially raise over $100 million in new funds annually.

  3. Then there’s transit justice. With transportation reform coming up this year, fair fares for riders would go a long way to making affordable housing throughout the region more accessible. It is not feasible nor reasonable for low-income residents in our Gateway Cities to pay $4000 per year for commuter rail.

We understand that Housing Choice does not directly remedy segregation and displacement, both vital issues requiring new tools and solutions. That is why we also support important tenant protections like the right to counsel in order to prevent evictions; incentives and requirements for more communities to build apartments; and a new anti-discrimination law that would make it illegal for communities to exclude low-income people through zoning and permitting.

Unfortunately, outside of the Senate’s historic vote in June of 2016, passing a comprehensive zoning reform bill has proven impossible.

We shouldn’t give up. But we should take advantage of this unique moment and pass the Governor’s Housing Choice proposal to take an important step toward our goal.

The membership of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance includes organizations working on housing, environment, planning, design and public health.


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