Beacon Hill housing debate centers around local control

Baker’s incremental approach hit as day late, dollar short

THE LATEST BATTLE over state housing laws and what can be built where is a familiar one, pitting those who prize local control against those who think more top-down requirements are needed to create homes that people can afford.

Gov. Charlie Baker has aligned himself with mayors, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, developers, and some housing advocates in favor of lessening the statutory hurdles for zoning changes while leaving those decisions to city councils and town meetings. Supporters of that approach say it would free communities from the current law that empowers a minority in local government to block new development, and they say it will still leave room for additional legislative housing efforts down the road.

“Let’s start with first things first, which is if you don’t do something to change the way the local process works so that a simple majority can make decisions around the future of a community’s housing production plan, you’re not going anywhere,” Baker said Tuesday after testifying before the Housing Committee.

Others demand a more robust response to the long simmering housing crisis, which is manifested by skyrocketing home prices and more people without a place of their own.

“I feel that it’s a day late and a dollar short,” said Rep. Alan Silvia, a Fall River Democrat, criticizing the governor’s incremental approach. “We need to do much more.”

At a hearing Tuesday, Silvia recalled how a 79-year-old disabled woman had stopped by his district office the day before in need of shelter and said “the housing authority told her she’s on a waiting list of seven years. This is wrong.”

Housing production has fallen from more than 30,000 per year in the 1970s to less than 13,500 per year in the 2010s, according to the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which said there is a housing supply gap of 39,000 units concentrated in metro Boston.

The governor has amassed an impressively large coalition in support of his narrower approach, which came close to passing late last session. But those who favor a more energetic response to the housing crisis could have an opening to make more sweeping changes this session, which is still in its early months. Rep. Kevin Honan, the co-chairman of the Housing Committee, filed legislation with Rep. Andy Vargas, a Haverhill Democrat, and Sen. Joseph Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat, that would go beyond the governor’s bill.

Honan’s bill would set a statewide housing production goal of 427,000 units by 2040 with at least 20 percent affordable. It would also require communities served by the MBTA to establish at least one area of the municipality permitting multifamily housing without age restrictions, and it would allow courts to require abutters who take legal action against a development to post a $15,000 bond, which supporters say would limit frivolous lawsuits. Sen. Jamie Eldridge of Acton sponsored a different bill that would hike taxes on the sales of expensive homes, and provide $500 million in financing for affordable housing and other priorities.

Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican, represented the views of those who worry about the implication of state-imposed housing requirements on their communities.

“Do people have a right to say, ‘I want to live in a small community that’s mostly small homes with one-acre lots because that’s what I want’?” DeCoste asked. “Or is there some overriding need to have the state impose their notion of housing on the rest of them? Do people have a right to live in a Dover or Sherborn or Norwell, Rockland, Hanover and just say, ‘If I wanted to live in a place that was more dense, then I would have moved to Chelsea or Brookline or Newton, but I don’t want that. I want a place where I can go out and it’s a semi-bucolic area.’”

The governor’s bill would allow housing-related zoning changes and special permits to be approved by a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority, while still ensuring that “new developments match community and neighborhood needs,” according to the Massachusetts Municipal Association. Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, said the current law empowers communities to resist development, which tends to make municipalities more exclusive and their housing stock more expensive.

“Getting to a two-thirds majority really allows those who oppose multi-family development and affordable housing to control what gets built. This really does perpetuate high housing costs and it perpetuates segregation,” Heller said.

Andrew DeFranza, executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, described the unwelcoming response he received when trying to find a site for affordable housing in Hamilton on the North Shore. As his group looked around and met with neighbors, there were complaints about every proposal and threats of lawsuits. Even though many public officials were “very supportive” of the idea, after nearly 300 meetings no site was selected, he said.

At one meeting, DeFranza said, he extended his hand in greeting to a man, and the man responded by saying he wanted to physically assault him. DeFranza declined to disclose on the record the exact threat.

Joseph Domelowicz, the new town manager of Hamilton, said he couldn’t speak to that specific allegation, but in a phone interview he said irate responses to affordable housing proposals are hardly unique to Hamilton, and the whole town should not be characterized by what one man allegedly said.

“Some people get angry even in not-wealthy communities,” Domelowicz said.

DeCoste acknowledged that people in his community would be mad if a private developer used the so-called 40B law to build a partially affordable development in town, but said they would be pleased if the local housing authority was given funding to build more units at its development for seniors and people with disabilities.

“If I came to my hometown of Norwell and told them I’d put up a 120-unit 40B, there’d be a revolution. It’s not something they’d want. If I told them they were going to get funding for 120 more units at Norwell Gardens run by the Norwell Housing Authority, they would be delighted,” DeCoste said. In a phone interview, he explained, “If the goal is to produce affordable housing, then housing authorities are the way to go.”

DeFranza treats senior housing more cautiously these days because, he said, it can be used by towns to reach the state’s affordable housing requirements while still keeping out young families who can’t afford the market rate.

“In communities where there is not affordable family housing, Harborlight Community Partners is no longer willing to do elderly-only housing,” DeFranza said. “As a matter of fair housing commitments, as a matter of ethical commitments, we do not want to be party to intentional exclusion of families, particularly families of color from more affluent white communities.”

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

The 40B law was designed to spur affordable housing production by giving developers a way around local authorities, but it has had mixed success.

Half a century after the law was enacted, more than 300 cities and towns still don’t meet the benchmark of 10 percent affordable housing, even though the state often allows municipalities to count a single unit four times, according to the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations. The organization, which supports the governor’s bill as well as tenant protections and new revenue for affordable housing, also reported that African-American and Latino homeownership rates are far below white rates. In Essex County, the white rate of home ownership is 81.5 percent while the rates for African-Americans and Latinos was below 30 percent.