Gov. Baker Testifies Before Joint Committee on Housing

BOSTON – Today, May 14, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy testified before the Joint Committee on Housing in support of An Act to Promote Housing Choices, legislation filed by Governor Baker in February that calls for targeted zoning reform to advance new housing production in Massachusetts and supports the administration’s goal to produce 135,000 new housing units by 2025. 

Remarks as prepared for delivery by Governor Charlie Baker:

For the last four years, through collaboration with each of you and your colleagues, and with our municipal and non-profit partners, we have made housing a priority and put forward a robust housing agenda.

We have invested more than $1.1 billion in housing initiatives, 19% more than the prior 4 years, resulting in the production and preservation of more than 17,000 housing units, including 15,000 affordable units and 2,600 units for families and individuals with extremely low incomes

 Last August, thanks to your efforts, I signed the largest housing bond bill in Massachusetts history, authorizing more than $1.8 billion for the future of affordable housing production and preservation.

We have also advanced the development of more than 11,000 mixed-income housing units through the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, reformed the Housing Development Incentive Program, leading to 1,100 units in Gateway Cities and another 900 under construction, and worked with communities to implement smart-growth development and planning efforts.

While these investments will continue at unprecedented levels, we will never achieve the level of housing production that we need with subsidies alone. We must change the game by empowering cities and towns with the tools they need to respond to the demand for more housing.

Much like the opioid epidemic, the Commonwealth did not get into this Housing Crisis overnight.

For the last 30 years, Massachusetts has been producing half of the housing that we were building in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. “Not surprisingly, statewide, rents have increased by 75% since 2000, while Boston’s inner core communities have seen rents almost – or more than – double over the same period.

Many of you have heard me talk about all the national accolades that Massachusetts earns—#1 in innovation, #1 in education, #1 in AP scores, #1 in life sciences employment—but we are also #1 in the median rent statewide for a 2-bedroom rental at nearly $2,500.

Nearly half of all renter households –many of the residents in the communities you represent – are paying more than 30 percent of their income on rent. “

And the reality is no better for homeowners or prospective homebuyers.

Massachusetts single-family home prices were at the national average in 1980 and since then have increased faster than any other state. 

We are now the #3 state, trailing only California and Hawaii in median home values. That is not a race to the top that we want to win.

And those accolades that our residents and employers and educators should be so proud of, they are all at risk if we don’t solve the housing challenge.

What is the primary driver for this crisis? A century-old state law that requires near unanimous consent to proceed with popular development proposals.

This outdated law is almost entirely unique to Massachusetts. Massachusetts is one of the only states in the country, and the only one in New England, to require a supermajority to change zoning laws in its communities.

Our neighbors to the north in Salem are watching rents continue to rise and over half the residents struggling to pay their monthly housing costs.

Years of preparation and a proposal to permit the conversion of church- and city-owned building into housing, with new affordable units, have been knocked off track by a 7-4 ‘failed’ vote of the City Council

And this vote in particular not only leaves the several major vacant buildings empty, but has put the former Senior Center – which was recently sold to a developer that plans to create 16 condos – on indefinite hold.

But Salem isn’t the only place feeling this pain. 

In Ipswich, a proposal would have increased density in the central business district and supported downtown businesses, but failed, receiving only 63% approval.

In Lexington, where the two-thirds barrier forced a developer to shelve a 13 unit mixed use project located on transit lines.  That project would have provided 4 new affordable units. 

In Acton, where a mixed use development, with 130 units of housing, that was unanimously supported by the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen, and was endorsed by 62% of Town Meeting, failed by 19 votes. 

In Braintree, where Mayor Joseph Sullivan said the town will not go forward with plans to create a Chapter 40R “Smart Growth” district around the Braintree MBTA station that could have created up to 445 units with 89 affordable units. 

In Lenox, residents assembled two weeks ago for Town Meeting, and 54% voted in support of a mixed-income rental housing project. Of the 50 units – 41 would have been affordable. Of the 20 acre site, 15 would have been preserved for Open Space.

These are would-be homes for the chef in the restaurant downtown.  

These are the apartments for the recent WPI graduate that the local manufacturer needs to fill her open job posting.

These are the condos that grandparents need to downsize to so that they can stay near their grandchildren in the Berkshires. 

When we launched our Housing Choice Initiative in December of 2017, we announced the goal of producing 135,000 new units of housing by 2025. 

Achieving that goal requires a multi-pronged approach. 

First, we wanted to recognize and reward communities that were leading the way in housing production. So we established the Housing Choice designation and capital grant program.

In 2018 we designated 69 communities who applied best practices in their work to add housing. 

And I was pleased to announce another 10 for 2019 just last week in Haverhill. The Lieutenant Governor will speak more on how this program encourages communities to implement locally-driven housing best-practices. 

Next we needed to make systemic change. The Housing Choice legislation we first filed in 2017 and then refiled in its current form in February, is another critical component that we need to take the big leaps forward that our economy, our communities and our residents need. 

Thank you to this Committee for voting out a re-drafted version of this bill last session.  

Under the leadership of Chair Honan and then Chair Boncore, as well as Senator Crighton, you made prudent additions to our bill and we were pleased to file your version this session. 

We believe that the changes you made to encourage affordable production around transit, and to track our progress towards the 135,000 unit goal, have made this bill better and more effective. 

Chief among the reforms in the legislation before you today is joining the rest of the country in reducing the threshold for certain zoning changes to a simple majority. 

Importantly, such a change would still place housing development decisions in the hands of their would-be hosts, preserving the local autonomy we believe is critical for municipal leaders working to meet the unique needs of each community. 

And the experience of other states confirms that we can preserve our distinctively New England local character without such onerous restrictions on zoning changes. 

In order to maintain and grow the Massachusetts economy, we believe being able to live and work in the community you call home must remain within reach. If we fail to create more affordable options, our workforce and businesses will eventually be forced to relocate. 

Let me be clear: Our affordability crisis will not be solved by one piece of legislation, or one budget line item.

Our Housing Choice Legislation is not the end of our conversation on our affordable housing crisis.  “It took us many years to get to this place, and this legislation, with its carefully chosen set of best practices, is absolutely essential to any future efforts. 

The Housing Bond Bill we worked together to pass and sign is incredibly important. But without addressing zoning, no level of investment will create the new housing we need. 

By not removing barriers to zoning changes, the creation of affordable units will be more expensive, and less effective. By failing to make the updates in this bill, we ensure that the Housing Bond Bill is less impactful than it should be.​ 

There is always urgency in the voices of everyone I speak with on this issue—residents, mayors, select board representatives, business owners, community advocates, and residents. 

I implore you today to act with that same urgency to get this legislation before your respective bodies, so that a robust debate can take place and a bill can get to my desk.

Framingham Source Editor Susan Petroni

Susan Petroni Framingham Source Editor Email: Phone: 508-315-7176

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