Realtors always like to 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 and growing families looking to trade up are entering the market. But these eager homebuyers are quickly confronting a stark reality; housing is extremely expensive in Massachusetts and is quickly becoming more so.
The real housing crisis in Massachusetts is that too many people are chasing too few homes. No matter how many current homeowners put their houses on the market, it won’t expand the housing supply, help moderate prices, or close the affordability gap. Massachusetts needs aggressive policies that facilitate new home construction.
Despite the improving economy, new home construction in the Commonwealth is near an all-time low. But even in boom times we have historically lagged behind the rest of the country in meeting housing demand. This perpetual housing shortage is the direct, intentional result of the exclusionary housing policies practiced by many communities, especially in Eastern Massachusetts.
The Patrick administration has acknowledged this housing shortage and wants to incentivize the building of 10,000 units of multi-family housing a year through 2020. The administration also created the Compact Neighborhoods Policy Program to encourage building smaller homes on smaller lots that both preserve open space and are more affordable to persons of average means. But these worthy goals will be impossible to achieve unless communities stop using their home rule authority to suppress new home construction.
Each of our 351 cities and towns has its own local zoning and land use regulations. Many thwart needed increases in housing density by adopting large lot zoning requirements as well as local wetlands and septic system regulations that go far beyond already stringent state standards. Many prohibit multi-family housing or restrict it to people older than 55, or limit the number of available bedrooms. They do this specifically to keep out school-age children, believing they represent a net tax revenue loss, despite the many studies demonstrating otherwise.
Not satisfied with the power they already have to stop housing production, some municipal officials and no-growth advocates are now promoting legislation to completely rewrite the state’s
zoning and subdivision laws to gain even more control. Supporters claim it will promote the planning and development of sustainable communities. But there is nothing in the bill’s 1,400 lines of text that actually requires them to abandon the kinds of local exclusionary regulations that created the housing crisis in the first place. These tactics include: large lot zoning, moratoriums on the issuance of building permits, rate-of-development controls, excessive roadway standards and bans on multi-family housing.
The state’s zoning act is not the problem. Communities currently have all the tools necessary to diversify and expand their housing stock. Indeed, some of those tools, such as cluster and transfer of development rights zoning, were sponsored by the home building industry and supported by conservation organizations. What is needed to promote smart growth and make housing more affordable is local zoning reform. And while some politicians rail against Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law, history demonstrates that most municipalities won’t encourage housing for people of all income levels. Until they do, Chapter 40B will continue to be the most effective housing creation law we have.
The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts is calling upon state leaders, who know the status quo is threatening the Commonwealth’s well-being, to develop additional carrot and stick approaches to end local officials’ virulent resistance to new housing construction. Communities must be induced to repeal local regulations that drive up the cost of housing but have no added environmental or health benefit. They must adopt cluster-by-right zoning, create residential districts that promote starter homes, allow multi-family and affordable housing developments, and streamline and simplify local permitting. Only by taking such measures will we begin to solve the worsening housing crisis in Massachusetts that is forcing young families, our economic future, to flee the state in droves.