Is it out or is it in?
That’s the question that hangs over Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice legislation, as time runs out on Beacon Hill yet again.
The end of regularly scheduled sessions at the State House is around the corner, on July 31. Baker’s bill to spur more housing production, by making it easier to obtain local approvals, remains very much alive. But its fate remains uncertain. Some critics still think it goes too far, while others continue to argue that it doesn’t go far enough.
Just two weeks ago, the bill’s prospects seemed dire. Business groups that lobbied for it had all but given up after the Legislature’s economic development bill emerged from committee without Housing Choice attached. Baker had tacked this housing legislation, formally known as An Act to Promote Housing Choices, onto his version of the economic bill in March (days before COVID-19 changed everything). Maybe this vehicle could carry his stalled proposal across the finish line.
Earlier this month, however, the economic development committee decided to drop it from the bill. Oh, well. Better luck next year.
Except the House leadership clearly wanted it to happen. The House Ways and Means committee released its version of the economic development bill on Friday, and Housing Choice was back in.
Not so fast: On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means committee put out its counterpart version. Housing Choice was nowhere to be seen. A staffer in the Senate president’s office said the Senate looks forward to continuing the conversation about housing production. When? Maybe Wednesday, when the Senate is expected to debate the broader economic bill.
All along, Baker has portrayed his legislation as having broad appeal. At its essence, the bill would reduce the threshold voting requirement for a range of local land-use permits from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority. On Monday, Baker told reporters that “practically everybody” has embraced the bill. “We desperately need to create more housing,” he said. “We don’t have enough, and the stuff we have is way too expensive.”
But for the activists with “housing justice” groups that gathered outside the State House Monday morning, Housing Choice isn’t the answer, at least not in this form. Isaac Simon Hodes, an organizer with Lynn United for Change, said lawmakers shouldn’t pass Housing Choice without much stronger stipulations that ensure more affordable units will get built, and some tenant protections.
Representative Denise Provost of Somerville shares their concerns. She proposed an amendment in an attempt to strike the Housing Choice language completely from the bigger bill. Provost, a dogged opponent of Housing Choice, worries about the continued stream of middle-class and immigrant families who are getting priced out of her city. More housing, she said, doesn’t necessarily translate into lower prices. In some cases, it’s the opposite.
This stance has put Provost at odds with Joe Curtatone, her city’s mayor. Curtatone and Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem signed a June 21 letter to House Speaker Bob DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, on behalf of two regional mayors’ groups, in a last-ditch effort to get Housing Choice passed. Some suburban officials would like to see towns that already have a certain amount of affordable housing be exempt from Housing Choice, but the two mayors warned this would be a “dramatic weakening” of the bill.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a supporter, studied housing-related votes in Greater Boston over three-and-a-half years, from 2016 through mid-2019. Nineteen zoning or special permit votes failed during that time, but would have passed if Housing Choice had been in place. That, said MAPC executive director Marc Draisen translates to hundreds, if not thousands, of forsaken units.
Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, said many worthy residential proposals don’t even get submitted at the local level because the two-thirds threshold is deemed too high. NAIOP joined other real estate groups, along with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, on Monday to argue that this bill, and the presumed housing production it would bring, should be part of any economic recovery.
Time ran out in formal sessions two years ago before supporters of Housing Choice could get a floor vote. It’s further along this time. Plus, there is talk about holding a special session to deal with the state budget, and possibly other unfinished business. Securing the House leadership’s support represents a major victory for the governor, but it is by no means a guarantee the bill gets to his desk so he can sign it into law.
Is it out or is it in? At this point, there’s still no way Baker can be sure of the answer.