Equity concerns imperil Baker housing bill
Progressive push for add-ons could derail legislation
THE RACIAL RECKONING that is overtaking Massachusetts may have one surprising casualty: Gov. Charlie Baker’s housing bill.
After two and a half years, Baker’s “Housing Choices” bill is emerging for a House vote on Monday, part of a must-pass economic development bill. The bill has support from a wide coalition of business, municipal, and development interests.
But some of the strongest opposition is coming from organizations that say it does not do enough to help low-income residents and communities of color. The coalition, Homes for All Massachusetts, has been bombarding State House lawmakers with calls for amendments focused on helping renters and funding affordable housing development.
“To fast track a measure that really focuses on market rate and luxury development and ignores the outcry from communities of color, from working class people who are warning that in its current form that kind of development can actually hurt us, to move forward with that is just really out of step with the national moment, with the call to address systemic racism and economic injustice,” said Isaac Simon Hodes, who is working with Homes for all Massachusetts as director of Lynn United for Change.
“If Housing Choices goes through as written, it would be the single largest pro-housing change in zoning in decades,” said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which supports the bill. “We’re frustrated that a bill with this much impact has difficulty passing because there are other areas people want to add onto it.”
Today, a community that wants to change a zoning bylaw or approve a special permit for a project must get approval from a two-thirds vote of the governing body. Massachusetts is one of only 10 states that requires a supermajority vote to change zoning bylaws.
Baker’s bill – and the version included in the House economic development bill – would change that to a majority vote for certain zoning changes. For example, a community could by majority vote decide to allow mixed-use or multi-family homes near transit or a town center; allow the development of “in-law” apartments; or reduce lot size or parking requirements. The bill addresses affordable housing in a limited way, setting a simple majority threshold for developments near transit and downtowns where 10 percent is set aside for people earning less than 80 percent of area median income. Boston, which has its own zoning regulations, would not be affected.
The governor has pushed strongly for his bill since he introduced it in December 2017, arguing that Massachusetts is facing a “crisis” in housing, with limited supply pushing prices sky-high and making it hard for people to afford to live here. At legislative hearings, bill supporters cited examples of developments in multiple communities that had majority support of the governing body, but not two-thirds support.
Baker, asked about the bill at a press conference Monday, said it is clear Massachusetts’ housing stock is expensive and underdeveloped. “We don’t have enough, and the stuff we have is way too expensive,” he said.
While there is money available for development, Baker said, “The rules of the games are set up to go at a pace that makes it nearly impossible to keep up with growth in population and the changing needs and expectations of communities.”
In introducing the bill on the House floor, Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, House chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, said between 1960 and 1990, Massachusetts builders produced around 900,000 housing units a year. Since 1990, the state has seen an average of 430,000 new units annually. Rents and home values are among the most expensive in the US.
Some concerns about the bill have come from communities – often suburbs – that do not want the lower threshold. Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, filed an amendment to exempt communities that already make 10 percent of their housing stock affordable to moderate income households.
Other lawmakers want more local control. Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, a Lenox Democrat, called it a “city bill” that does not consider the nature of small-town town meetings, where a developer can pack a meeting with enough supporters to sway a vote. Pignatelli sponsored an amendment that would provide a local option for towns with fewer than 10,000 people – so towns could vote to adopt the simple majority standard for zoning changes or not.
Pignatelli added that there is an argument to be made for the two-thirds zoning requirement, which ensures a developer “does their homework” and gains broad support.
But the most vocal critics have come from progressives, who worry that the bill will lead to the development of more market rate and luxury housing, which could gentrify neighborhoods and displace low-income residents. The Homes for All Massachusetts coalition, which includes tenant and community organizing groups like City Life / Vida Urbana; Arise for Social Justice; and groups in Springfield, Lynn, Boston, and Chinatown, in a statement called it “unconscionable” to pass Baker’s bill while neglecting the needs of vulnerable individuals.
Hodes, the director of Lynn United for Change, said in his community, where city councilors routinely approve development, new units are rarely affordable. “Unless there are guidelines and requirements related to affordability and equity, developers are going to push for profitable luxury housing, and that’s going to not only exclude low-income people and people of color, it’s going to shift the market, lead to gentrification, and cause displacement,” he said.
The coalition is asking lawmakers to pass several amendments including establishing a right to a lawyer in eviction cases; allowing communities to cap rent increases; allowing communities to tax real estate transfers to fund affordable housing; and halting evictions and foreclosures for a year during the coronavirus pandemic. Without these protections, the groups say, Baker’s bill is “unbalanced and should be rejected.”
Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat who generally supports the coalition, said on the House floor that he is “generally supportive” of Baker’s attempts to lower the zoning threshold. But he said the state is also facing “an affordable housing emergency” and lawmakers need to “ensure we’re making housing policy in a comprehensive fashion” with a particular concern for the needs of tenants and people who are housing insecure or homeless.
Supporters of the legislation say hoping for a bill that goes further should not jeopardize the one that exists. Andre Leroux, former executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, a zoning reform advocacy group, said when Baker introduced his bill, the group wanted to incorporate numerous other reforms. But when legislative leaders indicated that they would not pass a bill without broader consensus, the group backed off its demands to focus on passing the Housing Choices bill.
“We need to do both,” Leroux said. From an equity perspective, he said, the Housing Choices bill will result in more apartment buildings being built, which are needed for families of all incomes.
Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate group, said when municipal, real estate, and business groups all come out in support of a bill it goes right down the middle. “It’s not the most radical bill but it’s a very important bill that will make a significant difference,” Small said.
When Baker introduced the bill in December 2017, he was facing reelection in November 2018, so the Democratic-led Legislature may have been reluctant to give him a win. And advocates pushing for broader changes led to a lack of consensus that kept the bill bottled up in committee through the end of formal sessions in July 2018. While some lawmakers then hoped to advance the bill in informal sessions, a single legislator can block a bill in informal sessions, and Connolly held it up. Baker reintroduced the bill in early 2019, and House lawmakers finally released it from committee Friday.
The Senate expects to take it up Wednesday. Senate Housing Committee Chair Brendan Crighton is proposing an amendment to the Senate’s economic development bill that includes the governor’s housing bill with some additions. These include setting state goals for housing production that includes affordable housing, and having a commission provide an annual report on these goals; protecting developers from frivolous appeals; and requiring communities with an MBTA stop to have one zone near an MBTA stop where multi-family homes can be built by right.Asked whether the Senate would try to add some of the equity amendments, Crighton said he has an open mind but wants to keep the bill “more in the scope of production.” He said he does not believe the amendments he is proposing will jeopardize the coalition supporting the bill.
Asked whether a final version could be agreed on by midnight on Friday, the scheduled end of formal sessions, Crighton said, “That’s what we’re working towards.”