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Baker puts the focus on housing as part of $240 million economic stimulus bill

The governor includes his Housing Choice measure in legislation as a backup plan

Governor Charlie Baker tethered his slow-moving Housing Choice bill onto a new economic development package that’s expected to be passed by lawmakers.
Governor Charlie Baker tethered his slow-moving Housing Choice bill onto a new economic development package that’s expected to be passed by lawmakers.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

If at first you don’t succeed, attach your legislation to a bigger bill that seems destined to pass.

Governor Charlie Baker has been around Beacon Hill long enough to know this old-as-the-State House axiom. And on Wednesday, Baker put it to the test by including his slow-moving Housing Choice bill in his new economic development package, a bill that’s all but guaranteed to get to the finish line.

The administration’s latest economic development bill calls for $240 million in borrowing over a five-year period, a considerably smaller amount than previous iterations.

But here’s what is particularly unusual about this one: the focus on housing. Baker tucked a version of his Housing Choice bill in there, for example. He had previously filed it as a separate bill; this version received the endorsement of the Legislature’s housing committee in December. The legislation would reduce the threshold to a simple majority from two-thirds for many zoning votes at town meeting or in a city council.

Baker doesn’t think current zoning laws are working. In his view, the high bar for passage is getting in the way of new apartments and homes that could help address what he considers to be an unprecedented housing crisis. However, some local officials worry the bill could lead to overdevelopment.

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Baker has been beating this drum for more than two years but still hasn’t received a bill from the Legislature to sign. He raised the profile of the proposal last year by embarking on a tour of sorts around the state with his top aides to build support. Last spring, Housing Choice Palooza T-shirts were made in Salem to commemorate the tour.

So it makes sense Baker would unveil his latest effort by returning to Salem on Wednesday — this time folding it into his new economic development bill. There, he was joined again by Mayor Kim Driscoll, a key ally in his Housing Choice campaign, as well as Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and state Economic Secretary Mike Kennealy.

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Baker isn’t just banking on Housing Choice to address the shortage. Of the bill’s $240 million bond authorization request, $85 million would be used to directly stimulate residential construction. Baker wants $50 million for grants and loans to accelerate the construction of low- and moderate-income housing near train and bus stations or ferry terminals. Another $10 million would go to multifamily projects deemed to be climate-resilient, and $25 million would be used to convert blighted properties into housing.

Separately, the bill would lift the state’s annual cap for a tax-credit program to help spur market-rate housing in Gateway Cities — mid-sized cities where the average household income is below the state average. The cap would be raised to $30 million a year, from $10 million, and the law would be changed to give the administration latitude to help projects in cities that are similar to Gateway Cities but don’t meet the state’s legal definition.

This bill reflects the work of a council Baker established last year that convened meetings across the state, to determine the most pressing economic issues. The state’s housing shortage rose to the top. No surprise there.

But Baker’s team, led by Polito and Kennealy, also heard about the need to stoke local economies that are outside the direct orbit of the blazing Boston-Cambridge area.

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Baker tries to address this, too. His new legislation would set aside $45 million for grants and loans for projects that foster innovation in clusters deemed of strategic importance to the state. Think: robotics, cybersecurity, fintech, marine technology (to name a few). Plus, there would be $10 million for a matching grant program to help tourism across the state and another $10 million to spur job creation or housing projects in small towns.

What’s not to like? Well, House and Senate leaders will have their own opinions. They will likely make tweaks, or maybe some wholesale revisions, and insert their priorities and pet projects as the bill advances.

Senator Eric Lesser, co-chairman of the Economic Development Committee, said he was encouraged by the housing focus and the efforts to boost parts of the state beyond Route 128. (The latter issue is a big priority for Lesser, who represents much of the Springfield area.)

Lesser declined to say what public policy provisions he hopes to add. However, he conceded he may try to put his legislation to crack down on patent trolls in there, if it fails to gain traction as a standalone bill. Baker had vetoed another version in 2018, after several big business groups complained.

Whether Housing Choice gets done will still be up to lawmakers, of course. But Baker made a shrewd political move with this backup plan: including it in a legislative vehicle that could have enough goodies to make everyone happy so it returns to his desk for his signature.

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