Housing Chief Warns “time is Not Our Friend”
BOSTON -- Gov. Charlie Baker has made housing production legislation an early focus of his second term, frequently talking up the need for action and planning with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and others in his administration to continue to try to build public support for his proposal with events around the state.
The Legislature’s timeline for considering the measure, however, remains unclear.
The Joint Committee on Housing held an introductory hearing Tuesday with no legislation on the formal agenda, yet Baker’s bill, H 3507, was still a common topic. Sen. Brendan Crighton, a co-chair of the committee, said afterward that he expected Baker’s bill to come up for a full hearing “soon,” but he could not provide a more specific schedule.
Administration officials have said they’d like to see quick action on the bill that made it through the Housing Committee last session but never reached the floor for a vote in the House or Senate.
“Time is not our friend in this one,” Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy told the News Service. “You have Town Meeting season for cities and towns to approve things, so we feel like it’s something that has to get done.”
Many towns have already held or will hold their spring town meetings in the next month or two.
Baker’s bill aims to stimulate construction of new housing by lowering the threshold for zoning changes from a two-thirds majority at the municipal level to a simple majority. Supporters argue the measure will allow greater flexibility to approve new projects while still allowing cities and towns to choose what works best in each community.
Officials who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing from HED, MassHousing, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association and other groups all detailed important background on their departments and organizations, outlining budgets and successful initiatives in the past. But the conversation repeatedly returned to the dire housing market, effectively setting the table for what the committee’s priorities will be this legislative session.
“When we talk about the housing crisis in the Commonwealth, we talk about all populations,” Kennealy said. “We talk about young families and their ability to buy a house for the first time. We talk about the elderly as well. This touches all facets of the population.”
Several testified that the biggest factor driving the crunch in Massachusetts has been an overall lack of production. Construction of new housing has dropped by about half since 1990, Kennealy said, and the lack of supply drives up purchase and rental prices -- which rank among the highest in the country -- for the units that already exist.
Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders, pointed out that production rates have slowed even in a period of population and economic growth.
“We know we’re probably headed into a period of slower economic growth,” he said in testimony. “It’s kind of a warning sign. We’ve got some macro headwinds coming, and that’s going to make those housing situations we’re dealing with right now more serious.”
Massachusetts ranks higher than the national average for availability of housing for residents in the lowest income bracket, but even so, the state had fewer than one unit available for every two extremely-low-income families in 2017, according to an analysis by the National Low Income Housing Coalition released last month.
On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s New England Public Policy Center will release a report further exploring shortages in the Massachusetts rental market.
Demand for state-supported public housing also far outstrips supply: 160,000 families across Massachusetts are currently on a waitlist to get into state-aided public housing, according to Jennifer Maddox, acting undersecretary of the Department of Housing and Community Development. That figure had not been tracked historically, but is now available under a soon-to-be-completed centralized tracking system as part of the Common Housing Application for Massachusetts Public-Housing, or CHAMP.
MassHousing Executive Director Chrystal Kornegay said during the hearing that the Chapter 40B program, which is designed to lower zoning restrictions if enough units meet affordability requirements, has been misused as the only path toward approval.
Baker’s bill, she said, could help.
“Without the zoning changes proposed in the governor’s bill, cities and towns are often held back from making changes that are right for their community,” Kornegay said. “This also means that 40B becomes the only way for a developer to get housing permitted and built. 40B was not meant to operate this way. It makes cities and towns reactive, not proactive.”