The housing bill that Governor Charlie Baker presented to the Legislature in Beacon Hill testimony last month showcased the governor at his best — but also his most tentative. The bill is well intended, thoughtful, and realistic legislation that would push Massachusetts a step toward solving one of its biggest long-term problems: the lack of middle-class housing.
The problem is that it’s an exceedingly small step when so much more is needed.
With a reelection campaign coming up, a truly innovative housing bill could be Baker’s opportunity to put forward a transformative agenda for Massachusetts. Reforming the state’s antiquated housing and zoning rules could lower housing costs by reducing obstacles to new construction, making the state a more attractive place for companies to locate and families to live.
To do that, though, Baker will need to borrow from the years of effort that zoning-reform advocates have put into overhauling the state’s antiquated rules — and spend some of his political capital nudging reluctant municipalities that are more comfortable with the devil they know.
Baker correctly diagnosed the problem, telling legislators last month, “Massachusetts is one of the most expensive states to find a home, and it poses the most serious long-term hurdle to continued economic growth.” The fundamental problem is that it’s much too difficult to build multifamily housing in most of the Commonwealth, with restrictions that invite sprawl and unaffordable suburban McMansions instead.
Baker’s legislation would allow municipalities to pass zoning changes by majority votes rather than two-thirds supermajorities, which should reduce the role of rank NIMBYism in local zoning.
But other proposals deserve support:
• Require all municipalities to make at least some provision for multifamily housing.
• Allow special permits, which are typically needed for larger development projects, to be approved by a majority vote, in the same way that the governor’s plan reduces the threshold to a simple majority to make zoning changes.
• Reduce frivolous appeals that gum up the development process. The state needs to weed out objections that clearly lack merit earlier in the appeals process, while streamlining consideration of all appeals.
• Create clear standards for site review that apply everywhere. Right now, zoning boards apply inconsistent standards when assessing a site plan, with some using it as a de facto block on development.
• Provide more training to the volunteer boards that serve at the local level, so that they understand their jobs better and make decisions that are more likely to hold up on appeal.
• Allow cluster zoning. Cluster zoning allows developers to build denser housing on the same overall land footprint. For example, if a developer wanted to build 10 homes on 10 acres, it would be possible to build all 10 on three of those acres, while reserving the other seven for open space.
• Make it easier for cities and towns to plan. The state’s municipalities want to plan for their future, and many want to incorporate smart-growth concepts. But completing a master plan that meets state requirements is an expensive process. If only the most essential elements were required, it would make it cheaper and more likely to happen.
• Enact explicit antidiscrimination policy into state law. With worries that the Trump administration will pull back from enforcing housing antidiscrimination law, it would be helpful if the state enshrined similar protections, to prevent municipalities from adopting zoning that has a discriminatory impact on race, age, family size, or other factors.
The danger of Baker’s plan isn’t that it’s bad. It’s that the Legislature could pass it, and then move on. That would be an unsatisfying outcome, but it would be in keeping with the Legislature’s pattern of taking only one bite of the apple on even big issues.
In the face of a problem of such critical importance to the Commonwealth’s future as housing, though, Beacon Hill — including both the Legislature and the governor — should set its sights higher.