It should have been a small but important victory in a state desperate for new affordable housing.
Last week, the Salem City Council voted 7-4 to back an ordinance requiring developers to include affordable housing in projects with six or more units.
But under the Commonwealth’s misguided zoning law, the measure failed. City councils and town meetings have to muster a two-thirds supermajority to approve zoning changes. Many new housing proposals, even if for the greater good, are too contentious, with too many sparring factions of the public, to overcome that hurdle.
The onerous requirement has curbed the production not just of affordable housing but also of market-rate housing. And the constricted supply has kept rents and mortgage payments painfully high — stretching the budgets of thousands of Massachusetts families to the breaking point and threatening the vitality of the Commonwealth’s economy.
State lawmakers can take a meaningful step toward fixing that problem before the end of the legislative session, July 31, by approving Governor Charlie Baker’s proposal to reduce the threshold for approving local zoning changes from two-thirds to a simple majority.
But, at the moment, they’re not inspiring much confidence that they’ll do so.
This week, the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies had an opportunity to signal its support for the governor’s so-called Housing Choice measure. Instead, the panel stripped it out of a larger economic development bill that seems destined for passage.
It was the latest blow to a measure that’s been kicking around the State House for two and a half years now. The politics here are shameful.
While more housing is undoubtedly in the public interest, too many communities oppose development because of selfish concerns about how it will affect property values or exaggerated worries about traffic. And for all the Black Lives Matter lawn signs cropping up in suburbia these days, there are still racist fears about who might move into new, affordable units.
That’s made Housing Choice a heavy lift. And as the legislative session comes to a close, even some of those who support the measure worry that it could drag down the broader economic development bill if it’s included — jeopardizing millions of dollars of funding for broadband access, loans to small businesses, and redevelopment of blighted buildings in some of the communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis. While that’s a risk, it’s the very political expediency of pandemic relief that makes it an opportunity to finally get the housing measure passed, and a situation that calls for lawmakers to find their backbones to make it happen.
And for Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who spent months trying to usher the affordable housing measure through the city council, the economic crisis has only made the Housing Choice proposal more urgent.
“Even in the best of economies, we had a homelessness and housing problem,” she says. “Now, we’re in a pandemic. I have 18.5 percent unemployment in Salem. . . . And given what we’re seeing with COVID, I don’t see that number changing dramatically for a while.”
The choice is clear. If lawmakers really want to help in a time of need, they cannot ignore one of their constituents’ most pressing concerns — the high cost of housing.
And if they’re serious about addressing the racial inequities that have moved front and center in recent weeks, they must do all they can to change a zoning regimen that has locked Black and brown people out of better-off neighborhoods for generations.
Housing Choice is really the least lawmakers can do; it’s a small move toward majority rule, a basic tool for boosting housing production. Addressing the state’s yawning housing shortage will require much more.
But it’s an important first step. And over the next couple of weeks, lawmakers should take it. They should reattach Housing Choice to the economic development bill, and they should get it to the governor’s desk for his signature.
State lawmakers, if they truly stand for the values they espouse of equality and access to opportunity for all residents of the Commonwealth, should have approved the measure long ago. Now, the moment requires it.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.