Can a housing secretary make a difference?
Healey banks on new cabinet position to help address dire shortage
THERE’S NO silver bullet to fix the dire housing shortage in Massachusetts, but Gov. Maura Healey is banking on a cabinet shuffle to set the state on the right track. Healey vowed during her campaign to create a new cabinet post dedicated to housing issues, and on Tuesday Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll set high expectations for what a new housing secretary could mean.
“We think it’s certainly going to be a chief reason we’re going to be able to meet or hopefully close the gap on the 200,000 housing units that we are short in Massachusetts,” Driscoll told a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Commission, a panel of municipal officials that makes recommendations to state government.
Housing policy is currently part of a broader cabinet department – the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
Healey’s pitch to break up the office into two separate cabinet posts is that the current structure makes it more jack of all trades, but master of none. An executive order filed in late January said the consolidated departments with consolidated goals were “making it more difficult to focus and achieve progress on either.”
For the past two decades, however, that reconfiguration involved pairing housing with related departments. Under Gov. Mitt Romney, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was bundled under a “super cabinet” umbrella with the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction and the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, an anti-sprawl effort led by environmental attorney Doug Foy, who was given the vaunted title of secretary for commonwealth development.
Then DHCD swiveled into the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development during the Gov. Deval Patrick administration.
“Gov. Patrick was the first governor to decide to merge the two — thinking they were inseparable,” Daniel O’Connell, who served as his first housing and economic development secretary, told the Martha’s Vineyard Times last year. “Without workforce housing, you can’t grow jobs in the state, and he wanted both in the same secretariat, with complementary programs to encourage job growth and provide housing as close as possible to where the jobs were.”
The paradox of spinning housing back into its own cabinet secretariat, a status it hasn’t had since Gov. Bill Weld’s administration, is that conversations around housing have become increasingly intertwined with questions of transit access, climate resiliency, and economic competitiveness. Driscoll acknowledged as much on Tuesday, telling the gathering of local officials, “when we think about the growth of housing, we have to partner that with transportation and infrastructure.
Why, then, pledge to silo the department? It may ultimately come down to individual gubernatorial preference.
“There is no right or wrong strategy,” said Jay Ash, a former secretary of housing and economic development under Gov. Charlie Baker. “Gov. Healey is all in on this, so she wants someone who gets up every morning and thinks about housing and reports to her about housing.”
The role and scope of the housing secretariat is still murky. Driscoll is chairing a working group that includes local officials, housing advocates, and developers, charged with fleshing out a structure for a new housing office. Creating a new housing cabinet post needs sign-off from the Legislature. Driscoll told the local government commission the administration expects to file a bill to create the office in March, but she said a new housing secretary may not be in place until closer to July.
Driscoll is perhaps as close to the ideal messenger for that task as the new administration can get. The former mayor of Salem is respected by fellow municipal leaders and housing advocates for pushing forward tailored but meaningful reforms.That said, Ash warns that a new cabinet post is no magic cure-all for the longstanding failure to build enough housing in Massachusetts.
“Some inflexible local zoning, the need for more state resources, a dearth of land, an economy that is making it difficult to produce housing should all temper expectations,” he said, for what the administration’s focused efforts can yield. “Even with a historic effort by Gov. Healey to catapult housing to the front of her policy agenda, it will be very difficult to get the hundreds of thousands of units of housing that we’ll need.”