Governor Charlie Baker’s Act to Promote Housing Choices looks like a modest proposal. It would allow municipalities to change some zoning rules with a simple majority vote, instead of requiring — as state law now does — two-thirds of a local government’s council or town meeting to agree.
The goal is to spur more home construction, especially in places that have built little in recent years, even as the region’s housing shortage hinders the economy. Every major real estate and housing group in the state backs the bill. The Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents all 351 cities and towns, has signed on.
One development lobbyist says it would be “the most important housing legislation passed in decades.”
But a year after Baker pitched the change, it remains in legislative limbo, having fizzled at the end of the formal session this summer. Now its backers, including Baker, are trying to move it through informal sessions — when a single “no” vote can torpedo a bill. They hope to get the change on the books in time for next spring’s round of town meetings.
The slow pace highlights how hard it is for the state to make even limited changes in housing policies fiercely protected by cities and towns, housing advocates say. Zoning laws, particularly in the suburbs, often prohibit the denser housing that is needed to make homes more affordable. Efforts to change the rules have failed on Beacon Hill many times.
“When you’re addressing zoning, you have a whole host of issues. People tend to be averse to change,” said Representative Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing. “Bills like this have a long history of dying a slow death.”
With the Housing Choices bill, Baker is trying to offer a compromise. He would make it easier for municipalities to change their zoning — key to his plan to add 135,000 homes by 2025 — while preserving the local control that many residents and local elected officials value.
The shift to a simple majority may not sound like a radical idea — it’s the margin required to pass most measures at the local level. But two-thirds approval has long been state law for zoning changes. As a result, many proposed developments — even those with substantial public support — wither because they can’t muster those extra votes.
“That super-majority is just such a hurdle,” said Tamara Small, senior vice president for government affairs at the real estate trade group NAIOP. “In our opinion, this would be the most important housing legislation passed in decades in Massachusetts.”
The bill that went nowhere in the legislative session that ended in July was backed by an expansive coalition. Everyone from home builders to affordable-housing groups to the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association — which has long resisted bills that override local zoning rules — lobbied for it.
But sensing a rare opportunity to pass housing legislation, some lawmakers and advocates pushed for amendments to the House version of the bill — measures that had already been passed by the Senate — to boost construction of apartments and condos with denser footprints. The more complicated bill died amid the end-of-session rush.
Since then, Baker’s office, Honan, and other backers have been talking about passing a “clean” version of the Housing Choice bill — one without any amendments — during informal sessions, which run through the end of this month. But with the rules allowing for a single lawmaker to block passage, it’s a tough path to navigate.
Last week, as word spread of a renewed push for the Housing Choice bill, Representative Mike Connolly, a freshman lawmaker from Cambridge, threatened to stop it.
In a le tter posted on Twitter, Connolly pointed to other stalled legislation that would boost affordable housing and protect renters facing eviction. He urged full debate of a comprehensive housing bill that might include more than a change of zoning votes. In an interview, Connolly said he generally supports the Housing Choice law, but it shouldn’t be the only housing-related legislation on the table.
“It’s difficult for me to accept that a group of lobbyists have agreed to something and that’s the only thing that can happen,” he said. “This issue deserves our attention in a formal session.”
Still, Connolly wouldn’t say he’s immovable. The letter has sparked “a lot of discussion,” he said, including talks about a “clean vote” on the Housing Choice measure, coupled with a promise to take up broader housing legislation when lawmakers return in January.
“We’d have to be open to that,” he said. “That would represent some progress.”
Housing advocates, too, sound receptive to a deal but stressed that a vote on the Housing Choice bill should be the start, not the end, of housing legislation on Beacon Hill.
“As we’ve said all along, we’d like to see it passed. We’d like to see it happen sooner rather than later,” said Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, which has long advocated for broad zoning reform. “But this alone will not address the much larger housing crisis we face.”
That concern was echoed in the Senate, which has passed broader housing bills as recently as 2016. Senator Joe Boncore, cochair of the Housing Committee, said lawmakers would probably consider the Housing Choices bill, but he included a caveat.
“This is a good start,” he said. “It just doesn’t go far enough right now.”
Tim Buckley, a senior adviser to Baker, wouldn’t commit to any particular proposals for next year but said the administration would listen to all ideas. Solving big issues often takes several small bills over time, he said, and this one is a good start.
“Major issues such as housing have many facets and are rarely comprehensively addressed in a single piece of legislation,” Buckley said in a statement. “But the administration is hopeful that the work of the broad coalition backing the bill will pay off before the session ends next month.”
Honan, too, said he is optimistic a deal can be worked out.
“It has a chance, but it’s not easy,” he said. “Every day, I’m walking the halls, talking to people on this. Work still needs to be done.”