DeLeo: Lots of work remains on housing bill

Bill pops out of committee, but consensus still elusive

THE HOUSING COMMITTEE advanced the governor’s housing choice bill with a nearly unanimous vote Thursday, but Speaker Robert DeLeo said that’s not a sign that agreement has been reached on the issue.

Moving that bill and 19 others out of committee should put pressure on members to get to work hearing each other out and talking about their differences, DeLeo said in a brief interview at Downtown Crossing where he was raising money for the Salvation Army.

“There are still some reps I think who have some real concerns. I think it was important for us to get the bill going so we can get that discussion going, and I think that if it stayed in Housing that would have showed that we weren’t trying to be serious in terms of moving it,” DeLeo said. “I’ve heard some reps who don’t think it’s strong enough, reps who think it’s too strong, so we still have some work to do.”

Rep. Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat who is House chairman of the committee, agreed that differences remain, but he said the goal is to put that bill on the floor for a vote sometime in 2020.

“Obviously we are dealing with a housing crisis,” said Honan. “We’re very excited that that bill is on a path now.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s housing choice bill gained the support of both the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the housing development industry, traditional adversaries on matters of zoning policy. Yet that hasn’t been enough to assure the bill’s passage.

The statutory changes the bill would make are minimal. It would reduce the threshold required by a municipal body to make changes to certain aspects of the local zoning code, which could enable cities and towns to allow for greater density in housing. The bill would end the dynamic that has occurred in some places where despite majority support, proposed zoning changes fail because of a powerful minority that prefers things to stay as they are.

Those who favor more changes to speed the production of affordable housing contend the governor’s bill is too narrow, and conversely, officials in Needham have argued that towns like theirs should be exempt from it because they already hit the state’s target of 10 percent affordable housing. Honan said the Needham proposal is the only one he has heard to scale back the scope of the bill.

Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, said if the housing choice bill hits the floor, he will work to ensure it includes protections for tenants, an option for municipalities to levy real estate transfer fees to finance affordable housing, and other elements.

“The goal of smart, transit-oriented housing production is very important, but what’s missing from the governor’s bill are stronger measures to protect tenants who are facing displacement and tools to help ensure that the housing that gets built is actually affordable to the people who need it most,” Connolly wrote in a message.

The only vote against the housing choice bill when it was polled out of committee Thursday was Rep. David DeCoste, a Norwell Republican.

“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 when the bill was up for a hearing in May. “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.’”

Last week, Brighton Democrat Jordan Meehan launched a challenge against Honan in the primary, and he plans to make “housing justice and tenants’ rights” a big part of the campaign. DeLeo and Honan both said the primary challenge was unrelated to the timing of the committee action.

“Politics had nothing to do with this,” Honan said.

Meehan said he was glad the housing choice bill is advancing, but he thinks more needs to be done.

“I think it’s necessary though by no means sufficient,” said Meehan, who plans to put out a housing policy proposal in the coming weeks. “I’m happy to see that they’re finally having a sense of urgency around issues of housing in the Legislature.”

The bill advanced by the committee is virtually unchanged from when Baker filed it, and Honan said the committee waited until December to act on it because the House had been busy earlier this year working on other policies, such as education funding.

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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.

Now with the bill one step closer to a potential floor debate, DeLeo hopes people on all sides will come to the table on the issue.

“What this does I think is probably force those folks to come out, and let’s try to talk serious in terms of what their issues are, and can we do something to alleviate their concerns,” DeLeo said.