Resistance to housing a never-ending saga

State keeps spinning its wheels as problem grows

HERE’S A QUESTION — and an answer — from a deep-dive look at one of the most vexing challenges facing Massachusetts. “Why can’t an average family in Massachusetts afford an average home in the suburbs anymore? The answer, at least in part: The suburbs don’t want them.”

There are all sorts of reasons why forces in the state conspire to block those hoping to grab hold of one of the pillars of the American Dream — whether it’s fear of more students, and their associated costs, in their schools or flat-out opposition to more residential development of almost any kind. Just how stubborn is that resistance? The quote above comes from a CommonWealth story published 17 years ago.

Almost two decades later, virtually nothing has changed.

As the Globe’s Tim Logan writes today, “a modest bill that would make it easier for cities and towns to build more homes — only if they want to — has been in legislative limbo for two years and counting, despite broad support and a months-long push for passage by Governor Charlie Baker.”

The legislation, called Housing Choice, is suffering the same pull-up-the-drawbridge fate as so many other efforts that preceded it. Those that already own homes aren’t generally keen on seeing new houses built around them, and established homeowners tend to be the people who dominate local elections and town meetings.

The main change the bill would make is to allow zoning changes to be approved with a simple majority vote of a local municipal council or town meeting, rather than the two-thirds vote now required. The existing structure basically provides for a tyranny of the minority, with a one-third voting bloc all that’s needed to block any zoning change.

The bill has won the support of developers, affordable housing groups, and even the state association representing cities and towns, which tends to be wary of anything that would weaken local control. But no matter.

Indeed, the Globe reports that opposition appears to have grown as the bill has foundered and been the subject of more and more discussion and debate. The paper says Needham officials recently wrote to their state lawmakers, arguing that the two-thirds status quo for zoning changes “encourages ‘sound and community-supported’ planning, with ‘proven benefits.’”

The Globe widens the lens to look at what’s happening nationally and finds that other states with similar problems with housing affordability are taking steps to address it, whether it’s imposing rent control to protect tenants or loosening zoning rules to allow more housing production.

State officials say the Housing Choice bill would help Massachusetts reach the goal of 135,000 new housing units built by 2025, but legislative leaders seem to be in no hurry to try to push the measure through.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

So while the Democratic-dominated Legislature regularly crows about all the progressive-minded policies it has authored, when it comes to one of the most basic building blocks of economic security for state residents looking to climb into the middle class or make more secure their place in it, Massachusetts looks more like a champion of inequality. That makes the observation offered 17 years ago by a local housing policy expert seems as apt today as it was then.

“The situation threatens a fundamental social contract,” Nicolas Retsinas, director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, told CommonWealth in 2002. “That contract says if you work, you can find a decent place to live. And if you’ve got a good job and work really hard, you can achieve the American dream — home ownership. That contract is void here.”