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Letting towns solve the Mass. housing shortage

The Legislature needs to support Governor Baker’s push to limit municipal control over housing development.

Workers built a big apartment complex on Cooper Street in Waltham, which is exploding with new job growth but has very little new housing.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Last month, Massachusetts got a fresh reminder of why the state desperately needs to change its zoning law.

Last week, it got a reminder of why that’s proving to be such an excruciating task.

Start with the news from January: A majority on the Salem City Council voted for a zoning change to allow a 180-unit apartment complex, the kind of development that would make a welcome dent in the state’s gaping housing shortage. Most councilors also favored another smart housing reform, allowing “accessory dwelling units” at existing houses, which can be a low-cost way to put roofs over more heads.


That should be good news — yet under the Commonwealth’s bizarre housing laws, both proposals failed. That’s because it currently requires a two-thirds majority for city councils or town meetings to make zoning changes, a requirement that empowers small minorities to thwart just the kind of housing projects the state so desperately needs. Both proposals fell one vote short.

It’s bad enough that the Commonwealth’s land-use laws tilt so heavily in favor of individual municipalities, whose resistance to change is so often at odds with the greater good — that is, finding homes for an economically diverse and growing population. But the state needn’t make it quite so easy, and the Salem votes were yet another reminder why Governor Baker’s stalled push to reduce the vote requirement to a simple majority is so critical.

Massachusetts needs more housing — period, full stop. It needs more affordable housing for low-income families, housing for middle-class families, and for the young singles who make up an increasing percentage of our workforce. Between 1960 and 1990, the state produced 900,000 new units of housing. But in the last 30 years only 435,000 new units were built, a period of time that not coincidentally mirrors the skyward trend of home prices. Putting more housing in the market, of all kinds, would protect residents of all income levels by absorbing some of the demand that’s now pushing up the whole market.


More sweeping zoning reforms bills — most of which this editorial board has supported — have been introduced on Beacon Hill year after year, and gone nowhere even as the housing imbalance worsens. The governor’s bill is much more modest, and that’s definitely a bitter pill for housing activists and sympathetic legislators. Its limited scope is why this page didn’t support it at first either. But while the disappointment of some legislators is understandable, it’s critical that they get behind this legislation and don’t turn it into a Christmas tree hung with a host of contentious proposals that would leave this bill as dead as every previous zoning reform.

A legislative oversight hearing last week provided a rare moment of insight into that very real dilemma, as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy made one more pitch for Baker’s bill.

During the hearing, state Representative Mike Connolly of Cambridge wanted instead to talk about a far broader approach to housing, including local-option rent control and a possible tax on corporations to fund affordable housing.

The governor’s zoning reform bill has been kicking around since 2018, suffering mightily from the Goldilocks Syndrome — way too little for housing advocates and way too much for some suburban communities, which tremble in fear of too much development.


So it sits, and it sits even as another town meeting season approaches. It now rests in the House Ways and Means Committee, which last week began work on the fiscal 2021 budget, a task that generally sucks much of the oxygen out of the Beacon Hill air.

No, changes to the state’s zoning laws will not cure all of Massachusetts’ housing woes; the governor’s office is also working on an economic development bill that will target increasing housing production. But as communities like Salem can attest, moving to a simple majority vote for local zoning decisions will certainly help, and it doesn’t require the state to spend a dime.

The danger now is that lawmakers will attempt to lard up the Housing Choices bill with all their pet housing-related causes until it falls of its own weight. But communities that want to approve more housing can’t afford to miss yet another year. And this state, which cries out for all kinds of housing to meet its economic needs, can’t afford to wait either.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.