By Christian M. Wade Statehouse Reporter Dec 25, 2017
Baker eyes housing crunch
BOSTON — Rising property values and construction that cannot keep pace with a growing population are conspiring to crunch the state’s housing supply, edging many first-time homebuyers out of the market.
Gov. Charlie Baker wants to boost the housing stock as part of an ambitious plan to add at least 35,000 new homes over the next eight years through a mix of policies and incentives aimed at making way for multifamily and affordable housing.
But the first-term Republican is also taking aim at restrictive local zoning, which many say is at the root of the state’s housing shortage.
Baker said he plans to push legislation to make it easier for cities and towns to change zoning rules to increase the density of development and reduce parking requirements. Both generally need a two-thirds majority of a city council or town meeting. He wants a simple majority.
“We look forward to working with the Legislature and partnering with cities and towns to deliver much-needed housing to regions across Massachusetts, while respecting our long-standing home rule tradition,” Baker said in a statement unveiling the proposal.
Paul Yorkis, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, said the plan shows “bold leadership” in an area that previous governors have been reluctant to get involved with.
“This is a very positive step on the part of the Baker administration,” said Yorkis, a Medway developer. “We are facing a major housing crisis.”
But the plan, which hinges on legislative approval, also requires approval by referendum or local boards on whether to keep the requirement for a supermajority vote.
Yorkis said there needs to be a bigger incentive to compel communities with restrictive zoning to change.
“By allowing cities and towns to opt in or out, it doesn’t address the need statewide,” he said. “That’s not going to solve the problem.”
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his organization is reviewing the housing plan, but he said on the surface it’s preferable to other proposals that would “cede local zoning authority to the state.”
“It preserves local decision-making and offers incentives and tools for communities to help address the challenge of increasing the number of housing units,” he said. “The fundamental principle here is the governor believes there needs to be local support to make these changes.”
Beckwith said local governments would resist any efforts to amend Baker’s legislation in a way that forces them to change zoning laws.
For example, lawmakers are considering ideas aimed at boosting the amount of affordable housing by allowing cities and towns to adopt “inclusionary zoning” that requires developers to designate units for affordable housing in exchange for concessions in other areas, such as development density.
A proposal to do that also requires communities to designate an area where developers have a right to build multifamily housing without a special permit, and it would require communities to designate areas where “cluster development” is allowed.
“This is a major rewrite of zoning laws,” Beckwith said. “It would take away the ability of cities and towns to control what gets built.”
More housing needed
Few argue the need for more low-cost housing in the state, which has the sixth-highest rents in the country, according to a recent study by Harvard University’s Center for Housing Studies.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimates the Greater Boston region needs at least 400,000 new affordable housing units by 2040 to keep pace with demand. Housing is deemed “affordable” when a tenant or owner pays no more than one-third of their income for housing costs, according to state officials.
To qualify for affordable housing, tenants generally must make less than 80 percent of the median income — adjusted to the size of their family — in the city or town where they want to live.
A state law approved more than 45 years ago shifts the burden onto cities and towns to ensure at least one-tenth of local housing is affordable.
The Chapter 40B law aimed to encourage affordable development by reducing zoning roadblocks, but housing advocates say it has done little to solve the problem, as towns have found a way around it.
On the North Shore, most communities fall short of the minimum, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development. Statewide only about 50 communities have reached the 10 percent threshold.
Jim Wilde, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Housing Partnership, said communities often set restrictive zoning as a way to block multifamily and affordable housing projects. As objections, he said, local boards often cite “myths” such as school overcrowding or an increased burden on police, fire and other municipal services.
“Nobody wants to say they don’t want people like them living in their town,” he said, “so they use the tired, old arguments about a drain on the school system or, ‘We don’t have the space for more housing.'”
He supports Baker’s plan and said the state needs to do even more.
“Because cities and towns are never going to do this on their own,” he said. “And if we don’t solve it soon, we’re going to lose even more people who can’t afford to live here.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org