We in Massachusetts are not eating our young, but we are losing them to other New England states and other regions of the country such as Florida where starter homes are plentiful and affordable. The state must make bold policy changes now to dramatically boost our housing stock and ensure that future generations can afford to stay in the state and power our economy.
One important change was contained in the economic development bill that was left in limbo when the Legislature adjourned midsummer. The bill had several provisions that would have helped tackle the housing affordability crisis, including a new statute, Chapter 40Y of the General Laws, to allow starter home zoning districts. The 40Y provision would create financial incentives for municipalities to designate these districts, enabling the creation of modern, affordable, energy efficient homes where first-time home buyers could settle and become part of a community.
These starter homes would be relatively small — a maximum of 1,850 square feet while the median size of US homes built in 2021 was 2,273 square feet — and built on lots no greater than a quarter of an acre, which would provide more than enough space for a backyard capable of hosting barbecues. While 1,850 square feet may not seem capacious to some, it is enough space to start the homeownership journey.
In fact, it is substantially larger than the ranch houses built across Eastern Massachusetts for returning World War II veterans in the middle of the last century, many of which were only 1,000 square feet. Those starter homes — many in Massachusetts were built by one builder, the Campanelli Brothers, while in New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere, Levitt & Sons built “Levittowns” — gave young people the chance to put down roots in a community. Some 8,600 Campanelli ranches were built in Greater Boston during the postwar years.
Today’s restrictive zoning requirements in Massachusetts, such as 1-acre minimum lots and excessive setbacks and frontage requirements, prevent the production of the type of homes built for earlier generations, and the result is a dearth of starter homes. This is not a problem that can solve itself. Municipalities won’t proactively make the zoning changes needed to facilitate the production of starter homes, so the state must.
State support and coordination are needed, along with incentives for local communities that are rightly concerned about new demands on municipal services, like police and fire and, most commonly, schools. The 40Y provision in the economic development bill includes a broad range of incentives; the more a community builds, the more state funding it gets.
While some might argue that a state law already on the books — the Smart Growth Zoning and Housing Production Act passed in 2004 — already provides such incentives for higher density development, the homes must be built in designated “smart growth” zones, which is the reason no starter homes have been built to date under the law. The smart growth zones established under the law have been too prescriptive, preventing builders and municipalities from finding land suitable to both for this purpose.
Conversely, the proposed Chapter 40Y would not require starter home construction to be limited to a smart growth district. Rather, a city or town could locate a starter home district anywhere that it establishes through its public process. While a municipality could conceivably do this today, just as they did in the 1950s, the reality is that they do not.
The 40Y provision is not designed to create enormous Levittowns or acres upon acres of cookie-cutter tract homes. Rather, it would allow for the construction of smaller homes on smaller lots in areas that make sense for a community and that blend in with other types of housing stock.
The Legislature, if it can’t do so in informal sessions, should suspend its own rules to come back into session this fall to enact the economic development bill. The state has the resources in the form of a multibillion-dollar budget surplus to provide the financial incentives needed to encourage cities and towns to zone for starter homes.
Our children and grandchildren aren’t going to wait around. Every day that Massachusetts fails to implement common-sense reforms like 40Y, it loses more young people to areas with more — and more affordable — housing.
Emerson Clauss III is president and managing partner at Allegiance Construction & Development and serves as president of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts.