Can a housing secretary make a difference?

THERE’S NO silver bullet to fix the dire housing shortage in Massachusetts, but Gov. Maura Healey is banking on a cabinet shuffle to set the state on the right track. Healey vowed during her campaign to create a new cabinet post dedicated to housing issues, and on Tuesday Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll set high expectations for what a new housing secretary could mean.

“We think it’s certainly going to be a chief reason we’re going to be able to meet or hopefully close the gap on the 200,000 housing units that we are short in Massachusetts,” Driscoll told a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Commission, a panel of municipal officials that makes recommendations to state government.

Housing policy is currently part of a broader cabinet department – the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

Healey’s pitch to break up the office into two separate cabinet posts is that the current structure makes it more jack of all trades, but master of none. An executive order filed in late January said the consolidated departments with consolidated goals were “making it more difficult to focus and achieve progress on either.”

It’s not the first time a new governor has played musical chairs with their cabinet structure, arguing that an improved flow chart could make a difference when it comes to driving actual changes in housing production on the ground.

For the past two decades, however, that reconfiguration involved pairing housing with related departments. Under Gov. Mitt Romney, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) was bundled under a “super cabinet” umbrella with the Executive Office of Transportation and Construction and the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, an anti-sprawl effort led by environmental attorney Doug Foy, who was given the vaunted title of secretary for commonwealth development.

Then DHCD swiveled into the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development during the Gov. Deval Patrick administration.

“Gov. Patrick was the first governor to decide to merge the two — thinking they were inseparable,” Daniel O’Connell, who served as his first housing and economic development secretary, told the Martha’s Vineyard Times last year. “Without workforce housing, you can’t grow jobs in the state, and he wanted both in the same secretariat, with complementary programs to encourage job growth and provide housing as close as possible to where the jobs were.”

The paradox of spinning housing back into its own cabinet secretariat, a status it hasn’t had since Gov. Bill Weld’s administration, is that conversations around housing have become increasingly intertwined with questions of transit access, climate resiliency, and economic competitiveness. Driscoll acknowledged as much on Tuesday, telling the gathering of local officials, “when we think about the growth of housing, we have to partner that with transportation and infrastructure.

Why, then, pledge to silo the department? It may ultimately come down to individual gubernatorial preference.

“There is no right or wrong strategy,” said Jay Ash, a former secretary of housing and economic development under Gov. Charlie Baker. “Gov. Healey is all in on this, so she wants someone who gets up every morning and thinks about housing and reports to her about housing.”

The role and scope of the housing secretariat is still murky. Driscoll is chairing a working group that includes local officials, housing advocates, and developers, charged with fleshing out a structure for a new housing office. Creating a new housing cabinet post needs sign-off from the Legislature. Driscoll told the local government commission the administration expects to file a bill to create the office in March, but she said a new housing secretary may not be in place until closer to July.

The administration is trying to pull off a delicate tightrope act, promising “to be aggressive” in tackling the housing crisis, while contending with sluggishness and sometimes even outright resistance from cities and towns when it comes to approving and building new homes.

Driscoll is perhaps as close to the ideal messenger for that task as the new administration can get. The former mayor of Salem is respected by fellow municipal leaders and housing advocates for pushing forward tailored but meaningful reforms.

That said, Ash warns that a new cabinet post is no magic cure-all for the longstanding failure to build enough housing in Massachusetts.

“Some inflexible local zoning, the need for more state resources, a dearth of land, an economy that is making it difficult to produce housing should all temper expectations,” he said, for what the administration’s focused efforts can yield. “Even with a historic effort by Gov. Healey to catapult housing to the front of her policy agenda, it will be very difficult to get the hundreds of thousands of units of housing that we’ll need.”



New stories from CommonWealth magazine

Legal sport betting snags: The Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Tuesday began to “set the goalposts” on dealing with illegal bets after all three of the state’s legal sportsbooks reported taking bets on games that were not legally permitted. Plainridge Park Casino, Encore Boston Harbor, and MGM Springfield owned up to errors by allowing bets on Massachusetts college games. Read more.


Public-private partnerships key: Rachel Wilson, CEO of CIC Health, says public-private partnerships will be crucial to dealing effectively with the next public health crisis that emerges. Read more.

A civil-rights agenda for Massachusetts: Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, sets out policy initiatives for the state in order to maintain its commitment to democracy, access, and equity. Read more.


From elsewhere around the web


New legislation would require worker’s compensation insurers and companies to pay more for funeral expenses — up to $25,000 or 10 times the average weekly wage, whichever is greater. (Salem News)


Boston Mayor Michelle Wu doubles down on her opposition to an elected school committee ahead of a Boston City Council vote on proposals to return to an elected board. (GBH News)


Housing availability is hitting record lows and low-income renters can wait years for federal vouchers only to find themselves boxed out of the market. (WBUR)

The head of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts predicts a grim future for the state’s employers amid a nationwide shortage of workers and rising rates of open jobs – a “demographic bomb cyclone.” (Boston Herald)


Wayland superintendent of schools Omar Easy has filed a complaint with the state anti-discrimination agency, two days after being placed on leave, citing “racist micro-aggressions.” (MetroWest Daily News)

proposed bill would let municipalities decide to install cameras on school buses to enforce traffic violations. (Telegram & Gazette)


Northeast Health Services and two former owners agreed to pay the state $940,000 after the Taunton-based firm allegedly allowed fraudulent claims to be submitted to MassHealth. (MassLive)

State Sen. Becca Rausch is again filing a data-collection bill that would require students enrolling in youth programs to provide documentation of their state-required immunizations, or a Massachusetts Department of Public Health-approved exemption form. (Wicked Local)


The Boston Herald reports that minutes from closed-door meetings last year show growing concern among MBTA officials with defects in new Orange and Red line cars being assembled in Springfield by Chinese contractor CRRC.

March madness: Service disruptions are coming next month to almost all parts of the MBTA subway and commuter rail system. (Boston Globe)


The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a man can no longer cite infidelity to avoid a murder conviction. (Boston Globe)

Gov. Maura Healey faces a big choice in selecting a head of the Massachusetts State Police: Hire from within the department or choose an outsider. (Boston Globe)