It was a cornerstone of her housing agenda on the campaign trail, and now it is coming to fruition: Governor Maura Healey has started the process of creating a new secretary of housing.
Last week, Healey launched a working group that will study exactly how to go about forming an Executive Office of Housing and a Cabinet-level housing post to lead it.
It’s a significant moment for a state with a severe housing shortage that seems to drive the price of renting and buying higher every day, with residents being displaced, or simply departing, at an alarming rate.
A housing secretary, some hope, could be the leader the state needs to begin addressing the crisis, and help push Healey’s agenda across the finish line. But the governor has — so far at least — been light on details of what exactly a housing secretary might do, where they’ll fit into the makeup of administration, and who they might be.
Here’s what we know, and questions that have yet to be answered:
When will the position realistically be created and filled?
Unclear. Healey has pledged to file legislation establishing the housing secretary position during her first 100 days in office, which will be up in mid-April. But the key word there is legislation.
While the state’s “czars,” who advise the governor but do not oversee an executive office or department (think the new climate chief job) can be created by executive order, installing a new Cabinet-level position is a more significant shake-up of state government and requires the governor to file a bill.
That makes a timeline difficult to estimate, especially because the Legislature is known to take things at its own pace.
That said, lawmakers tend to respect a new governor’s choices around the Cabinet and executive offices, and may be inclined to move the bill along expeditiously as a measure of good faith, said Greg Bialecki, former secretary of housing and economic development under Governor Deval Patrick.
Still, it’s safe to say we’re talking weeks or months, not days.
“The actual process is a bit cumbersome, but it’s meant to be cumbersome,” said Jay Ash, the former secretary of housing and economic development under Governor Charlie Baker. “The Legislature deserves to have a say so we can make sure we get this right.”
We’ve seen this before.
Should Healey’s legislation pass, it would be another in a long list of changes in where housing falls in the composition of state government.
Before Governor Bill Weld took office in 1991, the Department of Housing and Community Development — today a branch of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development — actually functioned separately from any executive office, and Weld’s predecessor, Governor Mike Dukakis, had a separate Cabinet-level official in charge of housing.
Since then, DHCD — which oversees a number of affordable housing and voucher programs — has been combined with agencies whose domain is closely linked to housing: transportation and the environment under Governor Mitt Romney, and economic development under Patrick and Baker.
Housing and economic development, currently under one agency, will be split in two.
That means two separate offices for two separate issues.
It’s not yet clear how the split of housing and economic development will work, but Bialecki said there’s already a well-established structure in the current agency for both housing issues and for economic development.
So splitting the office may be a matter of dividing up staff who already work on specific issues and maintaining their structures. It could even be as simple as taking what exists today as DHCD, adding more staff, and changing the title.
“We have an existing department of housing and community development, which already has its own staffing structure, state dollars, and administers a fair amount of federal funding,” said Bialecki. “It’s in many ways a self-contained operation today. I’m sure there will be some hiring and tweaking involved, but it should be fairly straightforward.”
But that’s all to be decided by the working group, said Ash. It’s a big, complex office, he said, and splitting it will need to be done thoughtfully, even if the final outcome ends up being relatively simple.
What will a housing secretary do?
Another point that’s not entirely clear.
Healey, in her executive order creating the working group, said the group is tasked with determining the advantages of creating a housing secretary for “meeting the Commonwealth’s long-term goals in expanding safe, accessible, and affordable housing for its residents.”
That doesn’t say a lot, but it hints at a point Healey has made repeatedly: the housing secretary may have a broad set of responsibilities.
As it stands, DHCD focuses almost entirely on affordable housing, not housing production, though its purview has begun to shift slightly with the MBTA Communities law mandating multifamily zoning in communities with access to the MBTA. DHCD has traditionally only tackled issues of land use when they relate to affordable housing, specifically the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law, said Bialecki.
But with MBTA Communities, DHCD has been setting guidelines for the new zoning and working to enforce them. That’s something that may well carry over into an Executive Office of Housing. That office and the new secretary may also be charged with quarterbacking Healey’s housing priorities, said Ash, like her plan to build new housing on state-owned land.
Whatever their role, having a housing secretary is a big deal.
Whatever the exact duties, many in the housing business agree that having a housing secretary at all is significant. The biggest reason? It sends a message that the new administration is taking the issue seriously.
“My hope is that elevating that position to a Cabinet-level position will make it easier for our housing people to work with different departments on different issues that housing touches,” said Jesse Kanson-Benanov, executive director of the advocacy group Abundant Housing Massachusetts. “But this is also signaling to everyone in the state just how serious of an issue housing is.”