We need to build more housing

We need to build more housing

Proposed incentives and zoning changes are good first steps

REAL ESTATE AGENTS always say it’s a good time to buy. And with the improving economy and low mortgage rates, young couples seeking to buy their first home, growing families looking to trade up, and downsizing baby boomers wanting to stay near their children are entering the market. But these eager buyers are quickly confronting a stark reality: Housing is extremely expensive in Massachusetts and becoming more so.

The reason for the housing crisis in Massachusetts is that too many people are chasing too few units. No matter how many current homeowners put their houses on the market, there simply is not enough housing to meet demand, moderate prices, or close the affordability gap.  Massachusetts needs policies that encourage new home construction of all types that persons and families of all incomes can afford.

Condos under construction on Washington Street in Dorchester.

Given the many luxury condo and apartment towers rising up in Boston, it may be surprising to learn that new home construction in the Commonwealth is near an all-time low, especially for single-family homes. But even in boom times Massachusetts has historically lagged behind the rest of the country in meeting housing demand. This perpetual housing shortage is the result of the housing policies practiced by many communities, especially in eastern Massachusetts.

Because of their “home rule” authority, each of our 351 cities and towns has its own local zoning and land use regulations. Many towns have thwarted new housing production for years by adopting large lot zoning requirements, enacting moratoriums on the issuance of building permits, and approving local wetlands and septic system regulations that exceed already stringent state standards. Others restrict multi-family housing to people older than 55 or limit the number of available bedrooms, or prohibit multi-family housing altogether. They do so in an attempt to keep out school-age children, believing they represent a net tax revenue loss, despite the many studies demonstrating otherwise.

Wading into this decades-long conflict between municipal officials who are resistant to growth and homebuilders trying to meet market demand is the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance with its bill to rewrite the state’s zoning and subdivision laws. Andre Leroux, the alliance’s executive director, and former Fitchburg mayor Lisa Wong recently laid out their argument in CommonWealth. Despite the alliance’s good intentions, and the fact that we share their goal of creating more housing, it is our belief that the legislation would not result in more housing choices, sustainable communities, or prompt, predictable permitting. Rather, it will largely strengthen “home rule” by giving communities more power to engage in practices that stifle production and drive home prices beyond the reach of average families.

For example, the legislation would severely limit the protections approved subdivisions currently receive from possible future zoning changes, thereby increasing the risk and cost of development. It would authorize mandatory inclusionary zoning, whereby a developer would be forced to set aside a percentage of units in a housing development for persons of low and moderate income, without any offsetting “density bonus.” The ability to create additional market rate units that would otherwise not be allowed is what makes it economically feasible for a developer to provide some affordable units.

And the legislation would grant municipalities the power to impose a broad array of new impact fees on development. It would do so while still allowing municipalities to continue their practice of imposing arbitrary and ad hoc mitigation requirements––a practice that hinders and burdens the financing and affordability of housing.

Even if one believed the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance’s contention that its bill would advance housing – notwithstanding the fact that the professionals who finance, build, and sell homes vigorously disagree – the legislation has almost no chance of becoming law. That is because it contains a number of provisions that are “poison pills” to both the Massachusetts Municipal Association and the real estate development industry. Municipal officials are staunchly opposed to any mandate to zone for multi-family housing or allow accessory dwelling units as a matter of right. Homebuilders and developers are fiercely protective of their ability to develop lots on existing streets without the need for approval from a local planning board. That is the reason why, in addition to its complexity and potential for upending more than 40 years of case law interpreting the current Zoning Act, similar zoning reform proposals have repeatedly failed to advance in the Legislature.

With its Housing Choice Initiative, the Baker-Polito administration has put forward a better and more realistic approach to the issue, one that incorporates ideas and suggestions from legislators, municipal officials, and housing experts. By creating a new program of incentives and rewards for municipalities that deliver sustainable housing growth, Gov. Baker has avoided the pitfall of trying to impose a new mandate on cities and towns. In that way, it is like the successful Green Communities Program begun under Gov. Patrick that encourages cities and towns to take steps to reduce energy use so that the state can meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets.

As a complement to its Housing Choice Initiative, the governor has filed a bill to make modest changes to the state zoning act to make it easier for municipalities to rezone for responsible housing growth. His legislation wisely eschews the kind of wholesale zoning reform that invites opposition from nearly all quarters.

The Housing Choice Initiative once again demonstrates the Baker-Polito administration’s belief in the importance of partnership between the state and its cities and towns. It recognizes that local governments are going to need millions of dollars in incentives, grants, and technical assistance if Massachusetts is to realize the governor’s goal of 135,000 new units of housing by 2025. It also challenges communities to be innovative and collaborative in making local decisions that will expand housing opportunities for their residents and all the citizens of the Commonwealth.

New incentives and the passage of the governor’s legislation alone will not be enough to solve the state’s housing affordability problem. But together with approval in the coming weeks of the housing bond bill put forward by Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Joseph Boncore, and the start of the long-awaited implementation by the Department of Housing and Community Development of the Chapter 40R Starter Home Program, Massachusetts can make substantial progress toward that end this year.

Meet the Author

Gary Campbell

Guest Contributor, Home Builders & Remodelers Assoc. of Mass.
Gary Campbell is the chief executive officer of Gilbert Campbell Real Estate and president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts.


  • Mhmjjj2012

    So what’s in the Governor Charlie Baker’s bill “to make modest changes to the state zoning act to make it easier for municipalities to rezone for responsible housing growth?” According to a press release from the Governor’s office, “…the Administration is proposing legislation…(that) would allow cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority.” Seems to me, the “simple majority vote” is much too low a threshold for zoning changes that will alter a community’s character.

  • BenSahn

    Some of the underlying premises in this article are simply wrong. For example, this sentence in the article is inaccurate and misleading: “Many towns have thwarted new housing production for years by adopting large lot zoning requirements, enacting moratoriums on the issuance of building permits, and approving local wetlands and septic system regulations that exceed already stringent state standards.” For one, municipalities can impose short term moratoria when they are redoing zoning but they are not authorized to enact long term moratoria on issuing building permits. For another, municipalities do not adopt wetlands laws to thwart new housing. They enact those laws to protect their local wetlands because the state wetlands law is loophole ridden and has not been updated in years. Examples include the state law not protecting all vernal pools or intermittent streams, which are protected by many town bylaws, and towns enacting better and more predictable buffer zone rules than exist in the state wetlands regulations. The article also fails to make a distinction between municipalities that are pretty much built out and those that are still developing. And, the smart growth bill would not allow ad hoc and arbitrary mitigation requirements. Instead, it would allow municipalities to recover costs of development in a smarter manner than they can do now.

    We do need more housing in the Great Boston area. The problem is that the developers would rather keep the same system and argue for deregulation rather than accept a better system that would foster growth in a smart way.

    • Guy Webb

      Ben, I don;t believe the author distinguished moratoria either way – long or short term, but the damage to production with the abuse of the ability to impose permit moratoria is real and is the point. Regarding the Wetlands Protection Act which is an EPA set of regs which Mass takes ownership of and makes a tick stricter than the feds. The existing rules are made even stricter locally, often substantially reducing the number of buildable lots with zero added environmental protection gained. You’ll have to show me where those loopholes are. I’ve lived with the WPA many times and they seem pretty solid to me. Title 5, the state septic code is already loaded with a huge margin of safety for environmental protection but many towns opt to add more unneeded rules that add significant expense or in some case make a parcel unbuildable. As for towns that are largely built out, particularly in Greater Boston, there are ample opportunities for redevelopment that would allow for more housing but local rules are often a hindrance.

      You’re naïve if you believe every zoning and regulation tool in the municipal tool box have only been used for forthright purposes and as they were intended to be used. Regulations in Mass being used as defacto zoning has been going on for decades. Go look at data and see how large lot zoning surged after the building boom of the 80’s. Nimbyism is very strong in our state and home rule provides a lever for even a small group of citizens who are opposed to development to severely curtail housing. The proof is in the housing production numbers. Again, look at the data. We have consistently under produced housing of all sorts for as long as permit data has been accurately tracked (since 1960). Decades of not meeting demand is why we are in a housing crisis now.

      Builders and developers don’t seem to be looking for deregulation as you suggest. I don’t see that the author makes such a point. I think they are looking for better regulations that balance the needs of housing demand with environmental concerns, local character, etc. Things have been so out of balance for so long which is why we are in a housing crisis now. The author points to some things that could be part of the solution. I’d love to hear how you would address this serious issue. The status quo sure isn’t helping.

      • BenSahn

        Guy, I appreciate reading your reply, but it gets so much wrong that I need to reply.

        1) Towns need to ability to impose short term moratoria when they are revising their zoning in a significant way. Otherwise builders, knowing what is coming, will use the time to buy properties and get permits for projects that they know they would be unable to build with the new zoning. Adding to nonconforming uses in a town is to be discouraged, not encouraged.
        2) The MA Wetlands Protection Act (WPA) is not “an EPA set of regs which Mass takes ownership of and makes a tick stricter than the feds.” The federal WPA, implemented by the Army Corps of Engineers, is a completely separate program. It is not one of the programs delegated from the feds to the state. MA’s WPA is more protective than the federal WPA for good reason – the federal WPA has a more limited jurisdiction as to which wetlands is regulates and is more limited in what it can regulate in wetlands than does the MA WPA. Also, I noted in my previous posting some important protections not in the MA WPA that more than 1/2 of the municipalities in MA have adopted with their own wetlands ordinances/regulations. Those added protections to wetlands may impose more conditions on development that would impact wetlands, but they add an important extra layer of protection to wetlands.
        3) I did not mention the Title 5 rules because I do not know them that well. You mention them and so I will note that at least one MA appellate court has upheld a town’s application of its stricter title 5 requirements to a project when the town was able to show that the state title 5 rules were not sufficient to protect a nearby drinking water supply.
        4) you claim I am naïve if I “believe every zoning and regulation tool in the municipal tool box have only been used for forthright purposes and as they were intended to be used.” Ha! People I know would call me a clear-eyed realist and not naïve. I cannot say that a municipality has never promulgated a requirement for a less than forthright purposed, but I can say with certainty that the local wetland rules I have seen and discussed with people were enacted to protect wetland and not for nefarious purposed. It is many of the towns without local wetland rules that some would consider naïve about the limitations of the state WPA. Recently I was speaking with a representative of a conservation commission in a jurisdiction without local wetland rules who said they were thinking of adopting such rules because the state WPA was so out of date. I asked why and the reply was that the state rules do not allow them to take into account current flooding or rainfall amounts or even commonly accepted short-term projections of changes in precipitation and flood plain areas. They want to do that to protect their community.
        5) I guess I have to say that you are naïve if you think the development community has been unsuccessful in getting compromises into the WPA and town rules. I have personally been at meetings where every knowledgeable person in the room wanted changes in rules that were not made because only the development community was not on board with them. That’s not a good way to set policy but it too often happens.