Gov. Baker pushing bill to overhaul housing zoning rules
BOSTON (AP) — There was a time — say, back in the mid-1970s — where finding a home to buy or an apartment to rent in Massachusetts would cost far less than an arm and a leg.
Now, an arm and a leg isn’t even enough for a security deposit.
The Massachusetts economy is on a tear, but the surge in new business development is also turbocharging the cost of finding a place to live. That, in turn, is placing more pressure on Statehouse leaders to come up with ways to make sure that people moving into the region, particularly metro Boston, can find a place to live and that longtime residents aren’t forced out of the market.
As lawmakers filter back to Beacon Hill from the August break, Gov. Charlie Baker is renewing his call for legislation he said will help communities produce more housing, including denser housing in downtowns.
On Wednesday, the Republican gathered housing and development officials from the Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick administrations — as well as his own — to help press lawmakers to act.
“We now have the dubious distinction of having the highest median housing prices in the country and the highest median rents in the country,” Baker told reporters. “I love being No. 1 on stuff. I don’t love being No. 1 on this.”
Baker is pushing his “Housing Choice” bill, which would let cities and towns adopt zoning rules related to housing by a simple majority vote of their governing body, rather than the required two-thirds supermajority.
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states to require a supermajority to change local zoning rules.
Baker said it has been frustrating to watch housing proposals in cities and towns fail in recent years because developers failed to secure the needed two-thirds vote — even after winning a simple majority of votes on municipal committees.
Baker first introduced the bill in 2017, but Democratic leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate have yet to bring it up for debate. Some critics have said it doesn’t go far enough to address the state’s housing crisis.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito called on lawmakers to approve the measure before Thanksgiving.
Baker has pitched the proposal in large part by saying it could help encourage the development of all kinds of housing, from single family homes to apartments and condos for single adults or older couples who want to live in more densely populated downtowns to affordable housing located near transit hubs.
“One of the most important things about this legislation is it will give communities the opportunity to reimagine their downtowns,” Baker told reporters this week.
Baker said gone are the days when retail — whether large department stores or mom and pop shops — could alone provide the anchor to a downtown or town center, given the surge in online shopping.
“Retail has a role to play, but the role it plays from this point forward will never be as big as it used to be, which is why you hear community leaders talk more these days about work, play, live when they talk about downtowns,” Baker said. “You can’t build a downtown on the back of retail.”
Among those supporting Baker’s bill is Greg Bialecki, who served as secretary of housing and economic development under Patrick from 2009 to 2015.
“If the bill were to pass this year, that there would be more housing starts next year,” Bialecki told reporters.