With a clean slate, Healey has running room to act on urgent issues
For business community, transportation, housing and competitiveness loom large
Three issues in particular stand out for businesses of all sizes in Greater Boston: transportation, housing, and competitiveness.
The passage of Question 1 theoretically offers the new administration and the Legislature a funding stream to address transportation – if the campaign promises on spending are upheld. The hundreds of millions, if not billions, in new revenue are meant to be dedicated, “toward education, roads and bridges, and public transportation.” Yet already influential education groups are lining up to grab their slice of the pie, even as the MBTA continues to struggle with hiring, delays, and significantly lower ridership.
As businesses and developers make decisions on location, public transportation plays a critical role, not just for productivity but also for attracting and retaining talent. Who the Healey administration chooses to lead this critical agency, and how strongly they defend transportation funding from powerful education interests, will be closely watched by all corners of the business community.
Housing presents an even more daunting challenge. The past two years have taught us that building significant new multifamily housing – the only way for Massachusetts to address the affordability crisis – is brutally difficult even when the governor and Legislature jointly push for it. Already we have seen several towns attempt to thwart new laws aimed at making it easier to build housing. This historic opposition to exurban multifamily housing from municipalities puts staggering pressure on Boston’s neighborhoods, and increasingly pushes rents in Quincy, Somerville, and other nearby communities outside the reach of too many households. It also delays timelines and increases costs.
The Healey administration should also work closely with Mayor Michelle Wu on a long-term plan for Boston’s financial district. It seems clear at this point that, regardless of how or when workers come back to the office, the future of the aging office towers downtown remains bleak. Buildings are mostly empty, retail sputters along at a fraction of its former pace, and debt maturities are about to come due. The reality is that very few of these buildings can be effectively converted to housing, and investors are unlikely to try and grab them as “buy-low” assets. Bold thinking and creative policies will be needed downtown, and the state and city may need to partner on an entirely new approach.
Both challenges feed into the third: keeping Massachusetts competitive. We have long been somewhat sheltered by our focus on “meds and eds,” and Cambridge’s standing as the epicenter of biotech adds increased cushion. But building new labs and commercial centers requires capital, and investors are increasingly concerned that Massachusetts is trending towards California in ways that has already led major employers to leave that state. The passage of Question 1 did nothing to alleviate those concerns.
Combined with the transportation and housing issues, the rise of workplace flexibility and the ongoing wars for talent, Massachusetts would be wise not to take the business community for granted. The Healey administration should work with the legislature on policies that encourage businesses to stay and grow here.The new governor enters office having made few promises, giving her tremendous flexibility to tackle the daunting challenges of transportation, housing, and competitiveness. The future of our economy may depend on how she uses that freedom.
Gary Kerr is managing director of Greystar and served on the Healey/Driscoll transition committee on Affordable, Abundant Housing.