Imagine a quarter-million new homes, all near public transportation. Sounds pretty good, right?
Massachusetts needs housing to keep its economy vibrant and to keep its workforce from leaving for better climes. Most working people would no doubt prefer to spend their time doing something other than being stuck in the massive traffic jams that are part of daily life for too many residents.
What better way than to encourage housing clusters within walking distance of MBTA rapid transit and commuter rail stations? It’s hardly a revolutionary thought — look no further than the community growing up around the relatively new Boston Landing station or the development proposed in the already densely populated neighborhood of Wonderland station.
The Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which advocates for affordable housing, recently released new data showing how the state can make greater use of such commuter-friendly venues to increase the state’s housing stock. Two points are worth noting: that some 517,000 housing units are already within a half-mile of some kind of station. But that increasing the average density around all 284 MBTA and commuter rail stations to 10 units per acre (the current average is 6.4 per acre) would add another quarter-million new transit-friendly homes.
How to get there remains the big question.
Two possible solutions are now on the legislative horizon, both teed up for consideration in the new year. Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choices bill aims to make it easier for communities to pass new zoning requirements by a simple majority vote rather than the current two-thirds supermajority. The bill got some momentum with a 16-1 vote out of the Legislature’s Housing Committee. It was originally filed in December 2017, and since then one study after another has pointed to the pressing need for more housing, even in communities that continue to worship at the altar of two-acre zoning.
Baker’s bill doesn’t mandate that any community make either the procedural voting change or adopt any of the zoning changes that would allow for the kind of “smart growth” policies that focus on greater density in town centers and near public transit hubs. But it would encourage all of that.
The governor’s bill was one of 20 housing-related bills approved and sent on to the House Ways and Means Committee before the Christmas recess.
Another bill well worth the attention of lawmakers in 2020 is that filed by the Housing Committee cochairs, Representatives Kevin Honan of Boston and Andres Vargas of Haverhill, and Senate cochair Brendon P. Crighton of Lynn along with Senator Joseph Boncore of Winthrop. It adds a statewide housing production goal of 427,000 new units by 2040, with at least 20 percent of those units designated as affordable. It would also require communities served by the MBTA — and that includes commuter rail, ferries, or buses in addition to subway lines — to allow for multifamily zoning near those stops as a “matter of right.”
It’s the sort of proposal the Housing Partnership study looked toward.
“We need a regional solution to the housing crisis,” Honan said. “If not, the state’s economic future will suffer.”
There will, of course, be pushback. Some communities insist that because they have met the state’s 10 percent threshold for affordable housing, they should be exempt from any changes in zoning laws. That’s why Baker’s common-sense proposal has been unnecessarily stalled for more than two years.
Another town meeting season — at which those critical zoning votes could be taken — is right around the corner. Honan insists that the 16-1 committee vote should build momentum for Housing Choices — enough momentum to give it the push it needs for an early floor vote.
If Massachusetts is going to solve its housing crisis, its leaders can’t keep kicking good proposals down the road like empty cans. Beacon Hill needs to act now — this year.