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A hundred years of choking housing growth catches up with Massachusetts

Since the early 20th century, the Legislature has let individual municipalities thwart housing. Now the consequences threaten the Commonwealth’s future.

Globe staff

A little more than a century ago, Massachusetts voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave the Legislature a far-reaching new power in the seemingly humdrum question of where to build houses and what type to build. The 1918 amendment gave legislators the authority to “limit buildings according to their use or construction to specified districts of cities and towns.”

The constitution’s 60th amendment was, at the time, the Commonwealth’s boldest assertion yet that housing ought to be a matter of public policy and not just left to the vagaries of builders and real estate companies. Instead of landowners simply deciding what to build and where, the amendment extended public control over the shape of the state’s future growth.


Three-deckers, Victorians, apartment buildings — and also garages, stores, and factories — would go where the state decided they should, on the amount of land that it said was appropriate. The amendment reflected a Progressive-era faith in the power of a muscular government to act in the public interest and create healthy, harmonious communities.

And then, less than two years after winning those powers, the state government all but abandoned them.

A hundred years later, Massachusetts is in the midst of a housing shortage that has been decades in the making — and indeed arguably has its roots in misguided decisions a century ago. Rather than keep the planning and zoning powers at the state level, in 1920 the Legislature delegated them to cities and towns — which promptly started using their new authority to pass rules that suppressed housing growth and kept out poor people and renters.

It didn’t take long for warning signs to start flashing about the impact of local obstructionism spawned by the zoning amendment. Just after World War II, the Globe reported that “zoning restrictions in many Greater Boston communities are hampering large rental projects” for returning veterans. In 1961, the Globe reported on complaints from builders that zoning rules made “more moderately priced housing ‘an impossibility to build.’ ” In 1971, a developer said, “until ways are found to force towns to change zoning codes … ‘we are not going to be able to lick the housing shortage in Massachusetts.’ ” A 1979 feature about housing in Braintree reported, “Because of zoning regulations and environmental restrictions … it is no longer financially feasible to build housing for the middle class in town.”


By and large, those warnings were ignored. Meanwhile, the gap between the cost of housing in Massachusetts and the cost of housing elsewhere kept widening. In 1940, according to the census, the median home value in Massachusetts was 1.3 times the national median. In 2000, it was 1.55 times. In 2021, it was 1.7 times.

Now, the bill may be coming due. The median single-family home in Greater Boston cost $707,250 in January, compared to $378,700 nationally in the fourth quarter of last year. In Boston, 46 percent of renters are “rent-burdened.” For years, housing advocates warned that crippling housing prices and the lure of cheaper housing elsewhere would eventually affect the state’s ability to sustain and attract businesses. Now a tipping point seems to have been reached; 110,000 people have left the state since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly enough to fill Fenway Park three times over.


Easing the current crisis will require dozens of changes to the way housing works in Massachusetts — changes in laws and policies, and better use of state funds. But just as importantly, it will require a historic course correction and political reset of sorts: The state needs to reestablish its primacy on matters of housing and wrest power away from the state’s 351 cities and towns just as it once did from the private sector.

The stars may be aligning for just such a shift. Former governor Charlie Baker managed to put a dent in local control for the first time in decades, signing a law that required some communities to allow more housing near transit routes. Now, in newly elected Governor Maura Healey, the state has a leader who has declared housing her top priority. Her lieutenant governor, Kim Driscoll, knows the ins and outs of housing policy to a rare extent in state politicians. And other states, such as California and Oregon, have set examples of state lawmakers reasserting control over housing in the face of unyielding local obstruction.

More importantly, though, for thousands of people the state’s housing problems have ceased to be theoretical. And the voices of people squeezed out by the state’s housing policies are starting to rival those of anti-housing suburbanites who’ve traditionally dominated the public debate.

Over the next few months, we’ll be telling stories like that of Jamie Augusta, a 29-year-old Chelsea resident unable to find a stable place to live with her newborn. Or Jonathan Sites, a 34-year-old pastor in Brockton who only was able to find housing in the city thanks to a state program designed to boost housing production.


The common thread running through their stories — and the state’s underlying problem — is the scarcity of housing of all types, which in turn has driven up prices. Every year the state produces too little housing compounds the imbalance. For price increases for existing homes to slow, more new homes of all types must be built over the course of many years. And for more to be built, the state needs to clear away obstacles for the people seeking to build them — whether those are financial obstacles erected by the market or legal ones imposed by recalcitrant cities and towns.

Plenty of local officials have their hearts in the right place. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has championed housing, and so have a smattering of other mayors and city councilors. But from Braintree to Rockport, just as many local officials continue to fight new housing projects. And there’s no substitute for state leadership.

In the near term, Healey can’t be shy about using her bully pulpit. Towns like Brookline and Lexington will be among the first to consider changing their zoning to meet the requirements of the new MBTA Communities law, and state officials like Healey, Driscoll, and Attorney General Andrea Campbell should make clear why they need to comply — and what the legal consequences might be if they don’t.


The state can also boost funding for programs like the Housing Development Incentive Program, which underwrite production of housing — as Healey has proposed. And it can make it easier for low-income residents to apply for subsidized housing opportunities, including by scrutinizing the residency and age requirements some towns impose.

And it can build on the new MBTA law by increasing density requirements and ratcheting up the pressure on municipalities to zone for more low-cost housing. We’re not naive enough to imagine that local control over zoning, so entrenched after a century, will disappear completely. But simply offering cities and towns financial incentives to allow for more housing clearly doesn’t work. They can’t be left with any choice in the matter.

Healey doesn’t seem quite ready to go that far yet. Asked recently by the Globe editorial board whether she wanted more power to pressure localities on zoning, she demurred.

“Let’s take it as it comes. You know, we’ve just started. We’re just underway,” she said. “There’s a way we’d rather approach things, and part of it is about getting everybody in the state on board with an understanding of the reality of what this state looks like if we don’t meet these housing goals.”

To Healey’s credit, she’s already taken one big step toward assuming a greater state role in housing construction. By moving to create a housing secretary in her Cabinet, she declared it a central state priority. Indeed, the fact that Massachusetts didn’t have a housing secretary before is emblematic of how little the state wanted to do with the nitty-gritty of housing production.

That hands-off approach doesn’t work. We’ve known it hasn’t worked for decades. It’s turned Massachusetts into a state where students and low-paid workers cram into houses because they have no other choice. Where the state on one hand claims it wants to reduce carbon emissions but on the other lets communities insist on large-lot, single-family zoning. Where stark economic segregation has come to be accepted as the norm — as if it were the result of forces of nature and not deliberate decisions at the municipal level to bar construction of housing that low-income people can afford.

Surveying the hostility of Boston suburbs to rental housing, one Globe columnist predicted that the time may come when the state “will take away the zoning privileges of local communities.” That was in 1971. In other words, the reckoning with local control the state needs has been a long time coming.

By nature, housing problems can’t be fixed quickly. It takes years to permit and build. But right now, Massachusetts still has a choice about how this housing crisis can end. The state can ensure that the housing is built to match residents’ needs and ambitions — or we can watch our neighbors, family members, and employers give up and leave.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.