Governor Charlie Baker just gave the Massachusetts Legislature another reason to pass his long-stalled “Housing Choice” bill: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Baker and Mike Kennealy, the governor’s housing and economic development secretary, made the case yet again on Friday. This time, they spoke about how the pandemic’s impact on lower-income communities and people of color underscored the inequities in the state. Baker and Kennealy touched on these points during a press conference in which they unveiled proposed changes to the economic development bill that they had filed in early March. Kennealy later doubled down during a committee hearing on that legislation, now deemed an “economic recovery” bill.
Frustrated with the inaction at the State House, Baker in March included his Housing Choice language in the broader economic bond bill with the hope that some version would be passed by the time lawmakers adjourn on July 31. At its essence, Housing Choice would lower the threshold needed for a variety of local land-use votes from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. Sounds simple. But the concept has prompted concerns about overdevelopment in some communities.
On Friday, Baker said “a small group of people” can tie up good residential projects, causing them to sink while mired in local permitting. The relatively paltry rate of housing production in this state, Kennealy added, has now proven to be “outright dangerous” during the pandemic, in that so many people are forced to live in tight quarters because rents and mortgages can be tough to afford — particularly in Greater Boston.
Of course, Housing Choice is no silver bullet. Not for solving the state’s housing crisis. And certainly not for the administration’s twin goals with this broader legislation: spurring a recovery and bringing more equity to the economy. The state’s unemployment rate went from under 3 percent to over 16 percent in one month, as the governor shut down much of the economy to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The Baker administration now wants assistance from the Legislature to help bring that number back to earth.
Kennealy detailed some of the changes he would like to see to the original economic development bond bill. The new version would bring the total amount to $275 million over five years, up from $240 million, nearly all of it to be borrowed by the state. Many of the changes are aimed at helping small businesses, particularly those most at risk of permanent closure. The hope, Kennealy said, is to fill in the gaps of the federal government’s much larger relief programs.
Baker and Kennealy want to see $35 million allocated for small business loans made by community development financial institutions, an increase of $25 million from their initial proposal. Grants to “micro-businesses” would triple, to $15 million.
Capital funds for restoring blighted or vacant properties would go from $25 million to $40 million, while funds for transit-oriented housing would be pared back by $15 million, to $35 million. In both of these cases, the administration recommends that priority be given for the communities most affected by COVID-19.
Will it be enough for the problem at hand? State Senator Eric Lesser, the co-chair of the economic development committee, made it clear he doesn’t think so. During the hearing on Friday, he said the scale of this plan is not commensurate with the scale of the crisis. That’s an indication this $275 million figure could go up by the time the bill leaves the committee.
Baker knows lawmakers will make their own changes before returning the bill to him for his signature. Will they finally give him Housing Choice? The COVID-19 pandemic ended his administration’s around-the-state barnstorming for this, and hindered the behind-the-scenes politicking. But it could also bring a new sense of urgency to the cause.