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Before business crowd, Baker again pitches bill to make housing development easier

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has worked for more than two years to get a modest housing bill passed. The Legislature has yet to vote on it.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has worked for more than two years to get a modest housing bill passed. The Legislature has yet to vote on it.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker used a Tuesday morning speech before a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce audience to emphasize several of his top agenda items for 2020: health care, transportation, and education.

But it was another hot topic, housing, that Baker seemed passionate about. It’s easy to understand why. For more than two years, he has been pushing a bill, known as Housing Choice, that would lower the threshold to approve a number of housing-related zoning changes and special permits at the local level. The bill, aimed at increasing housing production, hasn’t yet come to a floor vote in the Legislature.

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“Scarcity drives up price,” Baker told the crowd at the Boston Marriott Copley Place hotel.

Baker made the case that the corporate leaders in the room have a big incentive to take up the cause — if they are not on board already.

“It’s a tough issue, I get it,” he said. “Doing nothing on this issue will have a profound impact on your ability to [attract] the next generation of stars for your companies, and will have a profound impact on your ability to keep the stars you already have. We can’t ignore this problem forever.”

Baker was largely preaching to the choir: Most business groups, including the chamber, already support the Housing Choice bill. In fact, he raised similar concerns a year ago, when he last spoke before the chamber.

In the previous two-year legislative session, the bill ran into trouble when some housing advocates tried to get more changes included in the proposed law. Now, in the second year of the current two-year session, the main opposition could come from those who worry the bill could lead to too much development.

The bill, in essence, is simple: It would reduce the local legislative voting requirement for some housing-specific land-use votes from a two-thirds threshold to a simple majority. Many residential projects and “up-zoning” votes have run aground in town meetings and city councils because of the requirement for a two-thirds majority.

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Baker also said the bill could be crucial to reviving moribund downtown areas across the state. With brick-and-mortar retail on the decline, Baker views housing — mixed with restaurants, entertainment options, as well as some shops — as the key to those areas’ future.

The Legislature’s housing committee advanced the governor’s bill just before Christmas, and it’s now in the hands of the House Ways and Means Committee. Baker would like it to become law before another town meeting season passes, but that gets tougher by the day.

So he asked the audience members at the chamber breakfast to make their voices known at the State House.

“Make clear to your elected officials how important it is for you to be able to recruit and retain workers who can afford to live somewhere near where they work,” Baker said. “This one really needs to get done."


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.