As states from coast to coast grapple with high housing costs, some are beginning to take aggressive action. Oregon this month passed the nation’s first statewide rent control law. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has floated plans to cut state transportation funding to cities that don’t hit their construction goals.
But in Massachusetts, even incremental legislation that aims to make it easier for towns to change their own zoning has proved to be a challenge. The measure’s uncertain fate on Beacon Hill highlights the contentious politics around housing in a state that takes pride both in progressive social policy and in preserving local control of the look and feel of its cities and towns.
That balancing act was on display last month at a State House ceremony where Governor Charlie Baker revived the bill, talking up the dire need for more housing in Massachusetts — his goal is 135,000 new homes by 2025 — while taking pains to avoid alienating any key constituencies.
“This is a really urgent challenge to our growth, our success, and our future,” Baker said. “We’re making a big mistake if we don’t step up and fix this.”
Despite the surge of construction in Boston and neighboring cities, Massachusetts is building only half as much housing as it did in the 1970s and 1980s, and far less than it needs to keep up with strong job and population growth. The shortfall is driving up the cost of existing homes; the median price of a single-family home in Greater Boston last year climbed 5.2 percent to $610,000, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors. It is also forcing more people to move farther away from their jobs, resulting in longer commutes and more traffic on already congested roads.
Developers and housing advocates have long pushed for changes to state zoning rules that would encourage, or even require, more multifamily development in more places. But their efforts have repeatedly run smack into one of Massachusetts’ most-cherished governmental traditions: local control of land use and zoning in the state’s 351 cities and towns. Many suburban communities, in particular, have historically resisted larger-scale housing over concerns about traffic, density, and, in some cases, overcrowded schools. And their elected officials have stymied zoning reforms that could require it.
Even at the recent State House event, with all its talk of the need for more housing, Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito stressed their background as local officials, and promised to preserve local decision-making.
“We are not going to dictate and mandate terms from Beacon Hill,” Polito said. “We’re going to incentivize and assist our communities to plan the best housing choices for their communities.”
That approach contrasts with what’s happening in other states that are wrestling with similar housing crunches, particularly in California. There, Governor Newsom, who campaigned last year on a plan to vastly accelerate housing production, has said he wants to cut state transportation dollars to cities and towns that fail to meet construction targets. After receiving some pushback, Newsom now says he won’t do so for several years. Up the coast, Oregon became the first state to impose statewide rent control, when Governor Kate Brown signed a law that will limit rent increases on most apartments to 7 percent a year, plus inflation.
In Massachusetts, where such housing production plans remain optional, Baker’s focus is on making it a little easier for those that want to build to do so. His bill, he said, would encourage zoning changes for denser development by lowering the approval threshold for city councils and town meetings from the current two-thirds majority to a simple majority: 50 percent plus one.
Baker administration officials say they’re not sure how many units the change could create. But some local officials say that little tweak could make a huge difference.
“Some people seem to think this is a single,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem. “It’s a triple. All day.”
Driscoll has been trying since last summer to push through her City Council new zoning that would help convert two shuttered Catholic schools and a former senior center into dozens of apartments, many of them classified as affordable. Seven of the 11 City Council members support the measure, but it needs eight votes to secure a two-thirds majority. That eighth vote has been elusive; another attempt at passage recently failed by a 7-4 vote.
“We’ve been at this for eight months now. It’s incredibly frustrating,” Driscoll said. “These buildings have been vacant for years. We need to create a path to reuse them.”
Baker’s law would help, she said. But, despite broad support, it has proved hard to pass.
The measure stalled in last year’s legislative session on Beacon Hill after housing advocates and some lawmakers lobbied to include more aggressive zoning changes. Baker tried again during the informal session in December — when a single lawmaker can block a bill — and it fizzled when progressive legislators tried to include protections for tenants at risk of eviction.
At the State House rollout, Baker had a wide array of advocates on hand to back him up. Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, said, “We should move forward on what we can.” Geoff Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Municipal League, praised Baker’s bill, which he described as “bold in its impact, modest in its means,” and said “preserves and protects citizen-based decision-making.”
But there’s no telling how long that comity will last.
Housing advocates say they support Baker’s bill as a first step but made clear they’ll keep pushing for more. “We don’t think this is the last bite at the apple,” Leroux said. Beacon Hill veterans say that could be a tough sell to lawmakers wary of resistance back home, and perhaps from Baker himself.
And some progressive lawmakers such as Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge, along with affordable-housing activists, continue to argue that any bill that enables more construction should also include measures that specifically boost affordable housing and protect tenants at risk of eviction.
“Although we laud the legislation’s focus on zoning reform, it is likely that very little of the housing built under this legislation will result in homes that the families we work with can afford,” said Metro Housing Boston, an affordable-housing and homeless services nonprofit in Boston. “In a state with finite room to grow, every lot developed with a market rate apartment eliminates the opportunity to develop an affordable one.”
There also will be competing housing bills in the House and the Senate to contend with, such as a proposal by former Housing Committee co-chair Senator Joe Boncore that would require communities with MBTA stations to have at least some areas designated for multifamily zoning.
And, as always, there’s an array of complex items competing for legislators’ limited time. Baker said he’s hoping for a quick hearing, and a clean vote, on his relatively modest proposal, and said lawmakers should make it a priority in the 18-month session now getting underway.
Easing the requirement for zoning-change approvals won’t fix Massachusetts’ housing problems on its own, he acknowledged, but it’s something Beacon Hill should be able to accomplish.
“We can’t solve this problem by doing nothing,” Baker said. “This is one we need to get done.”