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Massachusetts is attempting to dig out of a massive housing crisis. The state’s top lawyer wants to help.

AG launching legal team to ensure cities and towns follow state housing laws.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell answered a question during an interview at the State Attorneys General Association meetings last year.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell has ramped up warnings to cities and towns trying to skirt a new state law designed to jumpstart local housing production, last month sending a letter to officials in Milton saying that if voters there decide to defy the rules, she may very well sue the town.

Her office, she said in a statement, “will do its job by enforcing the law.”

Now Campbell is doubling down, throwing her office fully behind the efforts of Governor Maura Healey’s administration to stem the state’s deep housing crisis by making plans to more strictly enforce housing laws that some local officials have skirted for decades.

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Campbell’s office is in the process of creating a new division, dubbed the Housing Affordability Unit, that may wade into local land-use battles that have historically held up development in cities and towns across the state and explore underutilized fair housing laws designed to prevent municipalities from making discriminatory housing decisions.

“It’s an office priority to address the cost of living in this state, and housing is the largest part of that cost,” said Pat Moore, the first assistant attorney general. “This unit is going to explore how we can best use our power to address our statewide housing shortage. That will require expertise to navigate a very complex, nuanced, and old body of law that controls development in the Commonwealth.”

Campbell’s office began searching for a director of the new housing unit last month and has already been advising the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities on some issues. Campbell intends to fill out the new unit and begin looking closely at local housing decisions.

There’s a long history of towns throwing the regulatory kitchen sink at housing projects they don’t want, even if state laws such as Chapter 40B mandate their approval. And it is not uncommon for residents or municipalities to sue to try and block new developments they don’t want. Even if the projects are eventually approved or the lawsuits dismissed, the drawn-out process drives up costs and prompts some developers to give up.

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That is a dynamic the attorney general’s office hopes the housing unit can help end. That could mean writing amicus briefs, or getting into the legal mud in order to help advance projects held up by lawsuits or arduous approval processes. It would represent a significant shift from past attorneys general and governors, who for the most part stayed out of local land-use issues.

“We will give voice to the strong state interest in making sure that development that is legal is allowed to be built,” Moore said.

A group of Milton residents has triggered a referendum on the town’s MBTA communities zoning, which Town Meeting approved in December.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

One major battleground for the new department could be the MBTA communities law, which requires cities and towns served by public transit to zone for multifamily housing.

In Milton, a group of residents has forced a referendum later this month on the town’s newly approved MBTA communities zoning plan. And several towns have publicly questioned the state’s authority to draft zoning guidelines for the law.

The new housing division could very well become involved in any legal battles that arise as more than 130 more communities are due to enact their MBTA communities plans this year, Campbell’s office said. The division will also be monitoring municipalities to ensure they are implementing those rules after they pass them.

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While the exact duties of the Housing Affordability Unit are still undefined, Campbell’s office is moving in a similar direction as the California attorney general’s office, which created a similar Housing Justice Team in 2021. That team has sued multiple California communities over their refusal to implement state-mandated housing plans, ordered others to approve specific apartment projects, and secured settlements from landlords over violations of California eviction laws

Campbell’s office said the housing division will also make an effort to educate local officials on fair housing laws and practices that may violate those rules. Many communities, for example, allow affordable housing projects only for seniors and specifically prevent the development of units that could house low-income families, which in some instances, Moore said is illegal.

“We can’t have a system where if a municipality finds state upzoning requirements inconvenient or for some reason undesirable, they get to ignore them,” Moore said. “That’s not how the law works for anybody, and it is not going to be how the law works for local government.”


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