Baker’s housing efforts meet resistance  

In the face of desperate housing shortage and soaring prices, Boston suburbs not eager to build 

IF COUNTLESS OPINION COLUMNS, university studies, and pledges by multiple governors were enough move the needle on housing costs, we’d live in one of the most affordable states in the union. 

Instead, nearly a quarter century after the then-newly launched Greater Boston Interfaith Organization took on the state’s housing crisis as its first major cause, affordability has fallen to depths unimaginable in 1999. 

As he moves ahead with his last year in office, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has rolled out a pair of housing initiatives that administration officials contend should significantly ramp up housing construction, which, despite the profusion of luxury condo towers in Boston, has been well below levels needed to meet demand for decades now. 

Approved by state lawmakers last year, the aim of Housing Choice is to make it easier for new housing to win approval on the local level, while spurring the creation of new condo and apartment districts near T stations across Greater Boston. 

“I think it could yield a lot of housing units – we are very excited about that,” Mike Kennealy, the state’s secretary of housing and economic development, told CommonWealth. “We are really going to start to play offense on housing production.” 

But claims by the Baker administration that Housing Choice will be a game-changer in tackling the state’s long-running housing crisis are already being called into question by facts on the ground. 

The new law faces significant backlash from several suburban communities, with local officials, like Henry Dane, a Select Board member in Concord, where the median home price is $1.4 million, openly discussing whether to simply ignore the new law and risk losing some popular, but rather modest, state grants that are attached to it. 

“Requiring us to build 750 units of multifamily housing, we would have to lose an awful lot of state funding to make it worthwhile to do this,” Dane said at a recent meeting. 

Gov. Charlie Baker during an August 2021 visit to Everett where St. Therese parish is being redeveloped into housing for seniors and families. (Governor’s press office photo by Joshua Qualls)

Meanwhile, Baker’s Housing Choice initiative comes against the backdrop of nearly a quarter century of failed efforts by state government to move the needle on the construction of new housing in Massachusetts. 

In fact, the failure of efforts by governors past to significantly increase housing production illustrates the often-significant gap between paper plans and projections and the realities of permitting and building new housing in suburban and small-town Massachusetts. Only months after the latest effort by a governor to goose housing production was launched, fears are already mounting that it could be heading for a similar fate. 

GHOSTS OF PLANS PAST  

Efforts to bring down home prices and rents by boosting housing construction are nothing new in Massachusetts. They stretch back at least to the late 1990s, when the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which was formed to marshal the clout of religious congregation to affect important public policy issues, launched an ultimately successful campaign to establish a $100 million state trust fund for affordable housing. 

In response to pressure over rising rents and prices, Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci proposed rewarding towns and cities that boosted housing construction with a “good neighbor” bonus of additional local aid.  

While that ultimately went nowhere, Cellucci in 2000 also signed into law the Community Preservation Act, enabling local communities to levy a surcharge to raise money for affordable housing and conservation efforts. 

But rents and prices, far from abating, surged to record levels. Gov. Mitt Romney, Cellucci’s successor and a fellow Republican, launched his own effort to tackle the housing affordability crisis. 

In 2004, Romney signed into law 40R, a “smart growth”-inspired statute to provide financial incentives to cities, suburbs ,and towns that created zoning for new rental and condo units around rail stations. 

A Boston Globe op-ed by Barry Bluestone, at that time director of the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, and economics professor Daryl Hellman, envisioned the potential for nearly 30,000 new housing units over the coming decade. 

“Over time, 40R will mean a slowdown in price and rent increases and more affordable housing for families at nearly all income levels,” the professors wrote. 

In 2012, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, expanded 40R with Compact Neighborhoods, which provided additional incentives for communities to zone for denser, multifamily housing near rail and transit hubs. 

The goal was to boost multifamily construction to 10,000 new units a year across Massachusetts, itself a relatively modest target given it is roughly half the 1980s rate of rental and condo construction. 

However, by the end of the 2010s, it had become clear that this array of efforts by three different governors had fallen far short of projections, producing barely a trickle of new units for an inventory-starved market. 

In a 2018 report, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, or CHAPA, reported that just 3,500 new apartments, condos, and townhomes had been built under 40R, a tenth of what had been initially projected. 

Patrick’s Compact Neighborhood initiative failed to come close to its goals as well, with an average of 7,500 new apartments and condos built annually over the decade, not the hoped for 10,000. 

A home built in Wrentham under the state’s affordable housing 40B program. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

In fact, despite these efforts, the gap between supply and demand widened considerably in the 2010s, with just 142,431 building permits for new housing units, according to US Census Bureau figures. That was both a drop from the 2000s and about half of the pace of construction between 1960 and 1990, when roughly 300,000 housing units were built each year. 

“If you go back, there is a whole string of governors who have tried to tackle this issue in different ways with mixed success,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. 

BAKER UPS THE ANTE  

During his first term, Baker built upon these earlier efforts with tweaks of his own. 

The Baker administration boosted incentives for housing construction in Gateway Cities and near town centers, while also launching a starter home initiative that so far has proven to be a bust in spurring construction of more modestly-priced single-family homes. 

In November 2017, Baker rolled out what would become the core of his administration’s approach to tackling the state’s housing crisis – Housing Choice. 

The first part of the proposal was simple as 40R, with its web of incentives and dense regulations, was complicated: Reduce the two-thirds majority needed on the local level to pass zoning amendments for new housing to a simple majority vote. 

With community resistance to new housing often strong, opponents only needed to win over an exercised minority of zoning board members or of town meeting voters in order to stop a project in its tracks. 

After a more than three-year drive, Baker and supporters of the bill finally pushed the proposal through the Legislature in January 2021 as part of a larger economic development package. 

But also tucked into Housing Choice was another provision, MBTA Communities, with the potential at least to move the needle on housing production. It requires 175 cities and towns across Greater Boston to rezone land for denser, multifamily housing near MBTA stations. 

Under the new rules, communities would be required to create new zoning districts within a half mile of transit stops that would allow at least 15 units per acre. A 2019 Massachusetts Housing Partnership study found that even boosting that number to 10 units per acre near T stations could unlock the potential for more than 250,000 new housing units across the Boston area. 

In another shift, the new rules, unlike 40R, rely not just on carrots to get local officials to cooperate, but also include a stick to prod compliance. Communities that refuse to comply with the new zoning directive lose access to MassWorks, a state grant program that focuses on infrastructure projects. 

While more ambitious than the changes pushed by past Massachusetts governors, the Baker administration’s Housing Choice initiative stops short of even more dramatic zoning reforms being pursued in some other cities and states. 

Dogged by prices and rents even more astronomical than those in Massachusetts, California recently took a big step, eliminating single-family zoning across the state in hopes of providing a big jolt to new residential construction. 

The new California law, known as SB 9, gives a green light to home and landowners to build up to four units on lots currently zoned for single-family homes. That, in turn, is expected to pave the way for half a million new duplexes, condos, and apartments. 

Given the decades of underproduction in Massachusetts and the ongoing, relentless rise in prices and rents, why not take a page from California?   

Kennealy, the Bay State’s housing chief, contends the California approach would not go over well here. “We are a very different state,” he said. “We have such a long tradition of local control here in Massachusetts. The beauty of Housing Choice – it totally respects that,” Kennealy said. 

He said the new law strikes the right balance between state and local control, having passed with the backing of a wide-ranging coalition that included chambers of commerce and the AARP as well as housing activists and developers. Kennealy said the new law nonetheless has the potential to spur the construction over time of hundreds of thousands of new apartments, condos, and townhomes. 

Josh Zakim, executive director of Housing Forward, a housing advocacy nonprofit, contends Housing Choice has already accomplished something significant, shifting the mindset of what’s possible in terms of tackling the housing crisis. 

“It’s a critical first step, but we need to do more,” Zakim said. “It has changed the conversation already, and that is critical. Some towns and cities who were otherwise resistant to any type of density are realizing something has to happen.” 

DOES IT GO FAR ENOUGH? 

Yet, given the size of the gap between housing supply and demand in Massachusetts, it’s an open question whether the Baker administration’s new approach can produce new housing on the scale needed. 

A nearly doubling in the amount of new housing built each year in Massachusetts – as much as 10,000 to 20,000 additional units each year – would be needed just to raise production back to levels seen in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. 

On paper, MBTA Communities could provide new housing on that scale. The zoning changes the law is designed to spur could pave the way for as many as 344,084 new housing units. Spread out, say, over 15 years, that would be nearly 23,000 new units a year. 

Combined with the 17,000 or so units being built each year now, that could boost total production to 40,000 units per year, or roughly back to where it was at its highest point in the 1980s, when Massachusetts was roughly average nationally in the amount of new housing built each year, not near the bottom, as it is now.  

But here’s the rub: To actually get another 344,000-plus housing units, all 175 communities would need to spend considerable time and energy rezoning the land around their T stations. 

That’s before you even get to the question of how many of these sites would actually attract proposals from housing developers. 

While they could face the loss of grant money by not adopting the new zoning rules – the proverbial stick in the new equation – there is no absolute requirement for communities to make these changes. In fact, there is growing concern among housing activists that some local officials might do the math and decide to take the hit rather than comply with the new rules. 

Newton City Councilor Marc Laredo, in a meeting in January on the new MBTA Communities regs, raised the possibility of doing just that. 

“I think we need to weigh that against, in my mind, what is a very small amount of funding at stake,” Laredo said of the new zoning called for in MBTA Communities provision of the law. 

He’s not alone in this line of thinking. Officials in Milton, Belmont, and Arlington have engaged in similar discussions, said Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, a group launched in earnest last spring to push for more housing construction across the state. 

“It’s spreading,” Kanson-Benanav said of the resistance to the new law. Thanks to the Newton incident, he said, “other people with bad intentions are catching on.” 

The comments by the Newton city councilor have exposed what may be a key weakness of the new law – penalties that don’t have enough of a bite to them. 

While communities that don’t comply would lose access to MassWorks, the program distributed just $68 million to roughly three dozen communities in 2020, meaning most Boston area cities and towns that year received nothing. Consider that amount in contrast to the $1 billion in local aid distributed each year by the Massachusetts Lottery. 

Nor is there necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the number of additional units that can be built under revamped zoning rules and the actual construction of that many units. 

The passage of 40R in 2004, in theory, enabled communities to zone for an additional 30,000 housing units. Nearly 15 years after the law passed, however, local officials had only zoned for 15,000 new units, with just 3,500 actually getting built, according to a study by Citizens’ Housing and Planning Assocation. 

“You can’t live in a zoning ordinance – you can only live in a house,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Massachusetts Area Planning Council. 

Another big concern with the new housing push centers on affordability. Simply boosting the numbers would not provide any guarantee the new units will be affordable to middle and working-class families given current rent and price levels. 

Draisen would like to see an additional requirement that a percentage of the units created under the MBTA Communities regulations be sold or rented out at below-market rates. 

“We can’t solve this problem through supply alone,” Draisen said. “We are not going to solve the problems of homelessness or underhoused families by building more market-rate or luxury units. We have to build affordable units that average working families can live in.” 

Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, says Housing Choice, including MBTA Communities, is already having an impact, with communities like Salem able to pass new regulations letting homeowners add in-law units. “These are some of the biggest changes to zoning in more than 40 years in Massachusetts,” she said. 

But while Heller sees the potential to boost housing production up to a total of 20,000 new units a year, that’s still far short of the 30,000 units a year of decades past. 

Heller also believes additional zoning changes – such as extending the MBTA communities’ requirements for multifamily zoning to all communities in the state – will be needed in order to further boost housing production. 

BAKER AT CROSSROADS  

With opposition mounting in the Boston suburbs to Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative, getting support on Beacon Hill for another round of local zoning reform seems ambitious. 

The Massachusetts Municipal Association and the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association are now calling for substantial revisions in the Baker administration’s proposed regulations for enforcing the new Housing Choice law. 

The groups would like to see the new law stripped of what critics say is its already weak enforcement mechanisms, with no threat of the loss of grant money for communities that don’t comply. 

Pushing back, some housing advocates contend the Baker administration needs to double down on its signature housing law, and make the penalties for noncompliance significant enough that local officials will take it seriously.  

Otherwise, Housing Choice could go the way of 40R and other past efforts to solve the state’s housing crisis – rolled out with great fanfare, only to fizzle amid lackluster implementation and local resistance. 

Kanson-Benanav of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, said, if necessary, Baker should consider using an executive order that dates back to 1982 and Gov. Ed King, which allowed agencies to pull back on grants to cities and towns. 

Meet the Author

Scott Van Voorhis

Freelance writer, CommonWealth
In a statement in February, the pro-housing group said it’s time to draw a much clearer line in the sand. “Make no mistake,” the organization said, “it is simply not acceptable for any community – particularly the most wealthy, racially segregated communities in our region, which perpetuate their own segregated demographics by limiting housing choices through exclusionary zoning schemes – to shirk their responsibility under this shared effort.”