The housing production legislation Gov. Charlie Baker refiled this session includes elements lawmakers added the last time around to track progress toward goals and prompt new construction near public transit. But as the state's housing crunch rages on, opinion is still split over whether the bill goes far enough to help those most affected by the situation.
Nearly 10 months after late-session talks fell through, debate on the proposal formally restarted at a Joint Committee on Housing hearing Tuesday, where supporters again described it as a needed move to address a growing problem, opponents called for alternatives with additional measures, and the administration's own testimony was backdropped by a line of silent protesters who warned that Baker's bill would widen inequality.
The crux of Baker's bill (H 3507) is lowering the threshold for new projects from a two-thirds majority of the relevant municipal body to a simple majority. Housing production has slowed dramatically in recent decades, leading to a shortage in supply, and Baker argued that many developments that reverse the trend are scuttled by a minority of local opponents.
However, with the bill now being weighed during a second successive session, disagreement remains over whether Baker's approach takes enough action. Several speakers argued that a simple zoning change will not be enough to address a multifaceted housing crisis — a 39,000 unit shortage and even more outside the reach of many low- and middle-income families — while others warned against allowing "the perfect to be the enemy of the good."
"Every year that goes by without enactment of the housing choice bill means that good housing proposals with majority support are defeated because they fail to achieve a two-thirds vote," said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. "If the Legislature enacts housing choice and it's signed into law tomorrow, we will be up here along with many others to advocate for additional measures to zone for additional affordable housing and more multifamily housing across the state. This will not in any sense end that debate."
Some support is coming more quickly than last session. During debate over Baker's original version of the bill, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance had called for additions to the proposal. But on Tuesday, the group's Executive Director Andre Leroux said he believes legislators should enact the version before them this time around.
"We know there is much to be done," Leroux wrote in his testimony. "But the Governor's bill itself represents a significant and progressive step forward in land-use and housing reform."
The governor's legislation is not the only proposal to make zoning changes easier to accomplish. Another bill (H 1288) filed by Rep. Kevin Honan, the committee's co-chair, would effectively make the same change but would also set a target of 427,000 new housing units by 2040 — with a requirement that 20 percent is affordable — and would mandate that communities accessible by the MBTA allow multi-family housing by right in at least one district.
Some speakers outright opposed Baker's legislation and warned the lower threshold would spur expensive development out of reach to many residents. While Baker and members of his administration were testifying, dozens of audience members lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing shirts identifying them as members of groups Neighbor to Neighbor and New England United for Justice. All wore matching stickers reading: "Luxury housing won't help us ... real affordability and tenant protections now!"
Many, however, argued that the base idea is sound but that Honan's bill, thanks to its added components, is a more comprehensive approach.
"We should approach the governor's bill and all of the housing production bills on the table today with a 'yes, and' mentality," said Rep. Mike Connolly, who plans to file a bill allowing municipalities to implement tenant protections such as rent control. "Yes, we can reform zoning, and yes, we need to do more to address affordability and to address homelessness."
Baker first filed the zoning-change bill in 2017. The Housing Committee reported it out favorably in March 2018 with some tweaks, but it languished in the House Ways and Means Committee and never came up for a vote before the session ended.
Speaking in support of his refiled legislation, Baker said the measures included were "carefully chosen" to help create 135,000 new housing units by 2025. He offered examples from around the state where ostensibly helpful or popular development projects fell short of a two-thirds majority, such as a 130-unit project in Acton that had unanimous Planning Board and Board of Selectmen backing but only received 62 percent of the vote at Town Meeting.
Massachusetts is one of the only states in the country and the only one in New England requiring such a high vote to make zoning changes, a high bar that Baker said contributed directly to sharp increases in costs of renting and owning a home.
"Massachusetts single-family home prices were at the national average in 1980 and since then have increased faster than any other state," he said. "We are now the number-three state, trailing only California and Hawaii in median home values. That is not a race to the top that we want to win."
After testifying alongside the governor and Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told the Local Government Advisory Commission that plans for new housing production "will do none of us any good" without tools to implement them.
"It's hard to get bills passed around here," she said.
After Tuesday's hearing, Sen. Brendan Crighton, the committee's other co-chair, said members have not yet decided whether they will back the governor's proposal, his fellow co-chair's proposal or a hybrid of the two. However, he said all agree that there is a sense of "urgency" to report out a bill with enough time to secure passage this session.
"We don't want to be having this conversation next session, so I think we're all committed to getting something done," Crighton said. "I don't think we can afford to not get something done in terms of housing production."
Michael P. Norton contributed reporting.