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Both Healey and Wu say we need to tackle the region’s housing crisis. Here’s how that’s going.

Governor, mayor are both pushing ambitious housing agendas, but progress has been slow.

Governor Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu have both put housing near the top of their policy agendas. But pushing meaningful housing legislation through City Hall and the State House has proved to be slow going.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Housing is in the spotlight this year. Home prices are higher than they’ve ever been, and the shortage of homes here seems to grow deeper by the day.

Indeed, the housing crisis has finally grabbed the attention of top elected officials such as Governor Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who both say housing is the biggest issue facing their administrations. Each has ambitious — and controversial — proposals in front of the Legislature this year that, if passed, would represent some of the bolder housing reform efforts Massachusetts has seen in decades.

Here are some of the key policies, where they stand, and what you should know about them:


Accessory dwelling units

Both Healey and Wu are pursuing the broad legalization of accessory dwelling units, otherwise known as granny flats or tiny homes. ADUs are smaller housing units that can be added to an existing residential property, either in a garage or basement, or built new in a backyard. They are widely viewed as a relatively benign way to add more density to existing neighborhoods, and have gained significant momentum in states across the US in recent years. California, for example, has permitted more than 80,000 ADUs since it started allowing them in 2016. In Massachusetts, ADUs are mainly permitted at a municipal level, and progress building them has been slow.

Healey last October included a measure in her housing bond bill that would legalize ADUs on all single-family zoned lots in the state. Communities would be able to enact some “reasonable restrictions” like setbacks from the property line. It had already been met with some resistance from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which advocates for all zoning decisions to be left up to cities and towns. But ADUs are growing in popularity, and many communities here have started to allow them in some limited form already. That may make a statewide rule easier to pass.


Healey’s bond bill and the ADU measure have a hearing before the Joint Committee on Housing this Thursday, the first step in what will be a long journey on Beacon Hill before a final vote. If it passes, it would be among the most significant preemptions of local zoning control in the state’s history.

A vote on Healey’s bond bill is likely still months away, as it will require significant negotiation. Some housing advocates told the Globe it would happen closer to the session’s end in July.

Wu, in her State of the City speech last week, said her administration would also allow ADUs citywide, the culmination of a pilot program that has been testing their feasibility in select neighborhoods for the last few years. Later this year, the city plans to publish pre-approved designs and make available some funding to help residents with construction costs.

Wu’s plan likely wouldn’t mean a flood of new ADUs in Boston, because there are only about 7,500 lots in the city that could fit a backyard ADU, the Globe found last year. But statewide, a broad rule like California’s could open up space for nearly 1 million new ADUs across Massachusetts.

An accessory dwelling unit was lowered by crane into a backyard in Concord.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Real estate transfer tax

Another big issue in Healey’s bond bill: a local option for a real estate transfer fee.

It would allow cities and towns to tax high-dollar real estate sales to raise money for affordable housing. Municipalities would be able to charge anywhere between 0.5 and 2 percent on sales of real estate worth more than $1 million, or the median home price in counties where that figure is above $1 million. The fee would only apply to the portion of the sale that exceeded those thresholds.


It is perhaps the most controversial policy in the bond bill. Real estate industry groups argue the measure would discourage developers from building new housing, and that it would unfairly punish homeowners whose property has appreciated to over $1 million.

But an increasing number of cities and towns, including Boston and communities on the Cape, have asked Beacon Hill for permission to enact a transfer fee, saying it would generate millions of dollars a year for much needed affordable housing.

The policy will certainly be a flashpoint in debates over the bond bill. The Legislature has not acted on calls for a transfer fee in the past, though lawmakers may consider the policy more seriously this time around because it is part of Healey’s agenda.

Rent control

The debate over rent control is alive and well, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Tenant advocate groups have been ramping up pressure on state policy makers to seriously consider a rent control bill as rents continue to spiral upward.

There was an effort last year from Cambridge Representative Mike Connolly to gather signatures to put a local option for rent control on the ballot for the first time since Massachusetts voters ended rent control in 1994. But that was halted amid disagreements among tenant groups about whether it was the right time to launch such a campaign.


Meanwhile, Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline — the four communities that had rent control previous to the 1994 vote — have all recently submitted home rule petitions to the Legislature asking to create their own rent control rules or have otherwise signaled support for the policy. Legislators appear unmoved, and those petitions have gone nowhere so far.

Healey, who has been cautious with her statements on rent control in the past, said last year that she would support communities that wanted to enact it. But she notably did not include any sort of rent control policy in her bond bill.

A view of the Mary Ellen McCormack public housing complex, which is set to be redeveloped into a mixed-use complex including both deeply affordable and market rate apartments.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Public housing

It’s not as flashy an issue as rent control or taxing luxury condo sales, but public housing presents a huge problem for Boston and Massachusetts.

Thanks to decades of underfunding, public housing across Massachusetts is in chronic disrepair, prompting health concerns and forcing housing authorities to take precious units offline. Both Boston and the state want to give new life to their respective public housing stocks.

Healey’s bond bill would allocate $1.6 billion for repairs, redevelopment, and retrofits for the state’s 43,000 public housing units. Advocates say it would not be enough to bring all of those units into good condition, but still, it would be more than double the funding allocated in the last bill by former governor Charlie Baker’s administration.


And in Boston, Wu said last week that her administration would work to identify space to build some 3,000 new units of public housing, utilizing something of a loophole in a federal law that capped the number of public housing units the Department of Housing and Urban Development would fund back in the late 1990s.

It would be the first time in 40 years that Boston would grow its supply of public housing.

Formal housing production goals

Both Baker and former Boston mayor Marty Walsh established formal housing production goals — Baker wanted to build 135,000 new units statewide by 2024, and Walsh 69,000 units in Boston by 2030. Neither Healey nor Wu have yet done so.

But pressure is mounting from housing advocacy groups to set clear targets for new construction and to help address the region’s deep supply shortage, which by some estimates is as much as 200,000 units and growing. Healey’s bond bill has several provisions that would put in place the structure to create more accountability around housing production. One of those is the creation of a formal Housing Production Commission, which would look for ways to streamline housing production and recommend policies.

And there are several bills that have been submitted by housing advocacy groups that would establish production goals.

Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.