Making housing a Beacon Hill priority
It’s proving hard to get issue onto the urgent to-do list
IT’S THE QUINTESSENTIAL housing story for many Boston area residents in their twenties and thirties. An apartment with three bedrooms, each commanding $1,100-plus, one bathroom, questionable maintenance, lead paint, and a broken dryer somewhere down in the basement. The landlord is absentee, or aloof at best, flagrantly violating tenant rights and jacking up your rent while cutting corners at worst. If you’re buying, it’s even worse.
As the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung writes, housing is on the minds of elected officials, but hasn’t been a priority. The triple whammy facing area renters and would-be buyers: insufficient housing supply, a lack of affordable options, and inequity in access to housing.
It’s not as if local leaders aren’t trying. At a recent Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh asked the business community to support Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, to encourage developers to build middle-class housing, and to take a stance against displacement.
“We also need owners and investors to take a step back and consider the human impacts of their actions,” he said. Walsh’s administration has created 31,000 new homes and has a goal of 69,000 by 2030, with 20 percent being income restricted.
Meanwhile, for buyers, Leung writes, the median price of a Boston area single-family home is $640,000.
According to the Greater Boston Housing Report Card of 2019, issued by The Boston Foundation, there’s not enough housing, and the housing that exists is expensive. Metropolitan Boston is now the fourth most expensive area in the US.
Baker’s housing production legislation revolves around zoning, or, more specifically, allowing a majority vote to pass housing-related zoning changes in municipalities, where currently a two-thirds supermajority is required. It didn’t pass in 2018 because many housing groups were late at throwing their support behind it. Massachusetts is currently one of only a few states to require a supermajority to change local zoning.
Former state economic and housing development chiefs Jay Ash, Ranch Kimball, Dan O’Connell, and Greg Bialecki all support the bill, which is meant to bolster the already existing Housing Choice Initiative, a plan to build 135,000 new housing units by 2025.
But the bill is still hung up in the Joint Committee on Housing, where House chairman Kevin Honan is waiting for his colleagues who are concerned about overdevelopment to give their blessing to move it out.
Meanwhile, his Senate counterpart, Brendan Crighton, is interested in adding a change that would require towns to have multi-family zoning near train stations.
With education and transit bills hanging heavily over legislators’ heads, it’s hard to see how housing becomes a top priority right now. That would need the political will of Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka. When Baker said in September that he’d like to pass the bill this fall, DeLeo told reporters he wouldn’t commit to that, but was planning to discuss the issue with local officials, while noting many already in favor of the bill. DeLeo reiterated the long-held opinion that the bill doesn’t go far enough on some issues.
Baker is sticking to his guns and calling the bill a reasonable place to land. “Some people would like less, some people would like more,” he said a recent briefing. “I’m going to play Goldilocks here and say it’s just right.”