Governor Maura Healey, who made housing a central theme of her campaign, announced Friday that she filed an executive order to create a working group to establish the role of a new Cabinet-level housing secretary.
She announced the news in front of local leaders at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual meeting in Boston — the first public step the governor has taken toward her campaign promise of creating the role. Healey committed early in her campaign to elevate the post as a way to increase focus and resources on housing production during a time when housing has become increasingly less affordable.
Traditionally, the job of housing and economic development secretary has been one role in state government. So far Secretary Yvonne Hao has been serving in both capacities in the new Healey administration, though she will ultimately focus on economic development when the new housing post is filled.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll, who served as Salem’s mayor for 17 years, will lead the working group, which will include housing developers, advocates, municipal leaders, and others.
“This is delicate work, trying to divide programs and responsibilities from one agency into two,” Healey told leaders at the Hynes Convention Center. “We want to make sure we do it right.”
In her address, she described housing affordability is “one of the single biggest problems facing our state,” and lamented that there aren’t enough homes “at any price point,” or resources for families experiencing homelessness.
Without solutions to these issues plaguing the state, she said, the state loses its competitive edge.
“We are at a serious risk of our residents and businesses looking elsewhere to build their futures if they can’t afford to stay here,” she told municipal leaders. “We need more units . . . and we need them fast.”
In addition to hiring a new Cabinet secretary to take on these issues, the governor promised to invest in targeted housing solutions specific to the state’s regions, all of which have varying levels of need.
Healey, who was sworn in as governor earlier this month, is not required to file her fiscal 2024 budget proposal until March 1.
Rachel Heller, CEO of Boston-based Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association, said the announcement of a working group signals that the administration takes the issue seriously and intentionally. Building out a new office is no easy task, she said, but she is pleased to know there will be a Cabinet-level secretary to collaborate with other agencies. Housing is a cross-disciplinary issue, Heller said.
“This is an issue that is so critical to peoples lives, the health and vitality of our communities. There is so much that a secretary of housing can do,” said Heller, who served on Healey’s housing-focused transition committee.
“Housing in not in a silo, it’s not in a bubble. I hope to see someone who has a big vision for housing, who embraces taking on the big challenges,” she added.
The announcement of the executive order comes a day after Healey announced a $987 million “immediate needs” bond bill targeting housing and economic development. The bill would allocate $110 million to continue various housing efforts and $48 million for repairs and updates to public housing units. She said these housing-focused dollars would affect 80,000 residents across more than 230 cities and towns.
During her transition into the role, Healey said she also wants to “streamline some” of the building-permitting process and offer incentives to spur more construction. She said she also wants to explore turning “unused, underutilized public land,” including state buildings, into more housing.
“There are no easy solutions, and we need your partnership, your courage and your best ideas if we’re going to address our Commonwealth’s substantial housing challenges, “she said. “We’re in this together. And with urgency, focus, and collaboration, we can rise to this challenge.”