Governor Maura Healey on Monday said that she will appoint Edward Augustus, a longtime former Worcester city manager, as her first housing secretary, a new role that will be a cornerstone of her administration’s promise to tackle the state’s spiraling housing crisis. Augustus will begin on June 1.
“Ed Augustus is the leader Massachusetts needs to take the helm of our new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities and drive an ambitious, collaborative strategy to increase housing production and lower costs across the state,” Healey said in a statement.
During his eight-plus years in Worcester City Hall, Augustus helped oversee the redevelopment of Worcester’s Canal District, including thousands of new housing units that have helped revitalize the city’s downtown. He has also served as a state senator, chief of staff for Congressman Jim McGovern, and spent most of this academic year as chancellor of Dean College in Franklin before stepping down in April.
Now he will be the state’s first housing secretary in more than 30 years, overseeing the newly created Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, which will be split off from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.
The new office will be “solely dedicated to housing and driving solutions to create more homes and lower costs,” the statement said, charged with overseeing the state’s housing production strategy, financial assistance programs for low-income residents, and public housing.
Last month, the Legislature allowed Healey to create the position through legislation her office filed, with the Senate voting unanimously in favor on April 13. The House opted not to vote on the bill, meaning the plan will automatically go into effect at the end of May. Augustus’ appointment does not need approval from the Legislature.
Augustus will face an enormous task, heading up the state’s efforts to chip away at a housing crisis that is worsening by the day. That will include overseeing the rollout of the MBTA Communities law, which could make room for the construction of more than 100,000 new housing units by mandating new multifamily zoning in cities and towns with access to public transportation.
“Massachusetts’ housing crisis impacts every single community in our state, but we know what the solution is: Build more housing,” Augustus said in a statement. “This administration recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to achieving this and that we must work closely with communities to deploy a diverse toolbox of options to meet their unique needs. That’s what this new secretariat will be committed to doing.”
During his time in Worcester, Augustus oversaw a number of major real estate projects, including the transformation of the Worcester County Courthouse downtown into 117 mixed-use apartments, as well as a number of mixed-use developments around the Polar Park baseball field.
The effort “put Worcester on the map as a desirable destination for residents and visitors alike,” said Jay Ash, a secretary of housing and economic development under former Governor Charlie Baker, in a statement.
It’s that experience at the municipal level that some advocates believe positions Augustus well to guide state housing policy, and to advance Healey’s priorities on the housing front, the first of which is increasing housing production.
Achieving that goal — and filling the gap of roughly 200,000 new units the state is expected to need by 2030 — will require cities and towns to rezone for more multifamily housing, and the Healey administration will have to walk the delicate line of pushing those zoning efforts ahead without sparking a revolt from local officials.
“That’s where having someone with municipal experience is really helpful,” said Rachel Heller, CEO of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. “Housing policy is a balancing act between local, state, and federal government, and having someone like Augustus who knows what it takes to create housing on the local level is crucial to achieving that balance.”
At the same time, advocates agree that the Healey administration must do more to address the affordability crisis that cities and towns are grappling with right now. Take Worcester, which has seen a big influx of new development in recent years, but where housing costs are still on the rise. Much of the new development ushered in under Augustus was primarily market-rate, and local officials there are now pushing for an inclusionary development rule that would require new development to have a guaranteed percentage of affordable units.
Augustus will also face the looming challenge that is the state’s emergency assistance shelter program, which is being stretched to a breaking point by the housing shortage, a swell of migration to Massachusetts, and a growing population of homeless people.
So far, the state has converted around 20 hotels into temporary emergency housing to help ease the strain, and it is actively identifying other sites to house families as shelters reach capacity.
The cost of renting hotel rooms, though, amounts to millions per month, and Augustus will be tasked with finding more permanent and cost-effective solutions. As of Friday, 858 homeless families were staying in hotel shelters, a 121 percent increase from the start of the year, according to state numbers
Senator Lydia Edwards, an East Boston Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s joint housing committee, said she was happy the Healey administration chose someone with municipal experience.
But she noted that, because Augustus does not come from a housing background, he will have to become an expert quickly.
“It’s a certain level of pressure that is going to require a quick learner,” Edwards said.