Baker pushes $35m more for economic recovery package

Bill also includes governor’s housing, zoning proposals

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER on Friday proposed a $35 million increase and other changes in an economic recovery package he filed pre-COVID-19.

The expanded proposal, which now has a price tag of $275 million and came up for a legislative hearing Friday, will bolster housing, community development, and business competitiveness in an economic landscape dramatically altered by COVID-19, he said.

“By funding more affordable housing, implementing critical zoning reform, stabilizing neighborhoods, and supporting minority-owned businesses with record levels of funding, these proposed changes will bring critical relief and promote equity across Massachusetts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Baker at a State House press conference.

Baker also proposed some other changes that will reallocate funding to communities like Gateway Cities that have been harder hit by the virus. Baker is proposing allocating an additional $15 million for neighborhood stabilization (for a total of $40 million) in an effort to bring affordable housing units back on the market.

Lt. Gov Karyn Polito said the $40 million will go to the development of underused or abandoned property, and $5 million will go to local growth planning projects.

The legislation also includes language from Baker’s housing bill, which aims to add 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

Massachusetts’ home prices have grown faster than in any other state in the country, and rents have doubled within some communities over the past 20 years. In 2017, more than 30 percent of all households – and more than 50 percent of households making less than $100,000 – were paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the situation, officials said.

“The housing crisis won’t be solved by one legislative package, but this is a good start,” said Mike Kennealy, the governor’s secretary of housing and economic development.

The bill will would allow municipalities to change zoning with a simple majority of the city council, rather than the current two-thirds.

Baker pointed to Salem where any housing project has to get an 8-3 vote from City Council. In February, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll’s effort to redevelop vacant historic buildings failed during a 7-4 vote, something Baker said wouldn’t have happened with a simple majority.

Baker said the biggest pushback to his zoning law changes has come from people fearful of change. “In many instances, it’s a difficult or scary topic. It’s hard to get new housing built and that needs to be fixed,” he said.

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Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Baker’s housing bill language included in this economic development package closely mirrors legislation he filed in late 2017, which never came up for a vote in the House or Senate despite a broad coalition of support.

“I would have preferred to have that pass, what the governor had done last year,” House Speaker Robert DeLeo told State House News Service in February. “I think that bill at least moved the ball forward in terms of resolving at least part of the issue in terms of housing.”

Asked why he didn’t call a vote, the speaker said, “We were working with various groups at the time. We thought we could get to a finalization and when we got to a finalization unfortunately we were in informal sessions at that point so it was what it was.”