When does getting a majority of votes not count as a win?
Unfortunately for people worried about housing shortages in Massachusetts, the answer is when you try to change local zoning rules.
Just ask the folks in Arlington about this riddle. More than 60 percent of Town Meeting members voted on Wednesday in favor of legalizing in-law apartments, to create more housing in a tight market. But that wasn’t enough. Like other Massachusetts communities, Arlington needs a two-thirds majority to change its zoning, and this proposal fell short by a few votes.
And so it goes. Another effort to spur more housing falls by the wayside. The Arlington vote coincides with Governor Charlie Baker’s barnstorming campaign across the state to whip up support for his bill that would reduce the threshold to a simple majority for many zoning changes.
Welcome to Housing Choice Palooza. Baker went to Lawrence Thursday for an event with Mayor Dan Rivera to promote his housing bill, while Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito trekked to Barnstable. On Friday, Polito and Baker will meet up with their housing chief, Mike Kennealy, in a Salem brewery. The next stop? Kennealy and Polito head to Williamstown on Tuesday. Someone should order up tour T-shirts.
They are eyeing a crucial hearing in May, when the Legislature’s housing committee will take up the bill. The legislation is aimed at encouraging more mixed-use projects, particularly in town centers and near train stations, and enabling municipalities to reduce lot-size and parking requirements. Accessory-dwelling units, aka in-law apartments, would be easier to approve. (Maybe not in Arlington: The Baker bill apparently wouldn’t have applied to Wednesday’s vote because of the way the Town Meeting warrant was written.)
For Baker, this is the one that got away in 2018. Several pro-housing groups had pushed for more aggressive reforms last year. By the time they got behind the Baker bill, it was too late.
The Baker administration now hopes to get it done before the next town meeting season begins in the fall. That might be tough: The Legislature is in the midst of its annual budget debate, which tends to consume most of the oxygen in the State House. That should wrap up around July 1. But lawmakers drift away from Beacon Hill in August.
Many lawmakers agree housing should be a priority. Senate President Karen Spilka told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Thursday that she recognizes it as a pressing issue, though she didn’t offer specifics.
Baker made the bill a centerpiece of his speech to the chamber in February. He told the crowd at the time that he didn’t know of any opponents to the bill’s core premise.
That may have been wishful thinking. The bill has its detractors at the local level, even if they don’t have statewide lobbying groups to complain on Beacon Hill for them. Critics worry about traffic congestion, for example, or the urbanization of their communities. Those issues came up in Arlington this week, prompting town officials to table a set of more ambitious housing-related changes.
However, Baker can expect a positive reaction in Salem when Notch Brewing founder Chris Lohring hosts the governor’s road show on Friday. Lohring says the dearth of affordable housing is a major topic of discussion within the city’s restaurant community, and some of his 35 employees think Salem is just too expensive.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll has been trying to change that. Her office regularly fields calls from longtime residents who are being priced out. So she put forward a zone change to allow multifamily housing in vacant religious and municipal buildings. The change won 7 of 11 votes at the City Council. In other words: It lost. Driscoll needed one more vote to clear the two-thirds barrier.
Now, Driscoll is crafting a different set of housing changes, including an expansion of the city’s in-law apartment rules.
But she faces a dilemma: advance the changes to the council soon, or hold off with the hope that Baker's bill will pass? The city’s housing crisis is getting so severe, she says, she might not be able to wait.