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Calling for 135,000 new homes, Baker seeks zoning changes, promises cash for suburbs

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker

By Globe Staff 

Add Governor Charlie Baker to the list of people pushing for Massachusetts to build more housing. He’s even willing to step into long-running suburban zoning wars to do it.

On Monday, Baker set ambitious targets: Add 135,000 homes in Massachusetts over the next eight years — he’s aiming to extend the current brisk pace of development well into the next decade — and set aside $10 million in state funds to reward cities and towns that help.

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He proposed to tackle one of the chokepoints that hinders housing development in many Boston-area towns: rules that require a two-thirds majority vote to approve many zoning changes.

Baker rolled out his “Housing Choice Initiative” in a speech before civic leaders and housing advocates in Boston. He promised to push for legislation that would allow municipalities to lower the vote threshold for zoning changes that permit more density and reduce parking requirements. He advocates a 50 percent-plus-one majority.

“We look forward to working with the Legislature and partnering with cities and towns to deliver much needed housing to regions across Massachusetts, while respecting our long-standing home rule tradition,” Baker said in a statement.

The change would be a relatively technical tweak to the way single- and multi-family buildings are permitted in much of Massachusetts — one of just 10 states, Baker said, that require a supermajority for zoning changes.

But it could make a big difference in municipalities like Newton, where development politics are often contentious and a string of big projects have risen, or fallen, on tight City Council votes.

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“It’s a big step in the right direction,” said Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber. “A number of projects have been either significantly compromised, or never happened, because they needed to get so many votes.”

In Newton’s 24-member City Council, changing zoning requires 16 votes, rather than the 13 that would be needed should Baker’s proposal become law. Those additional three votes, developers say, can be tough to win.

Robert Korff knows that firsthand. The chief executive of Wellesley-based Mark Development, Korff struggled to win approval to build a 160-unit apartment complex on Washington Street in Newtonville. After more than a year of changes to the plan, his project won a 16-to-7 council vote, but now faces opposition from neighbors who sued after the developer redrew the project’s boundaries to avoid a rule requiring 18 votes for passage if a certain percentage of abutters object.

Bargaining over each additional vote takes time, Korff said, and time is money, which winds up driving up housing costs. Winning a simple majority would be far more efficient, he said.

“The inefficiencies of our system have a lot to do with needing a supermajority,” he said. “It contributes to a lot of funds being wasted.”

Still, the projects are often approved in the end, said outgoing Newton City Council member Amy Sangiolo, and the negotiations tend to produce developments that are responsive to neighbors’ concerns. With developers circling Newton and other inner suburbs, she said, she would be wary of doing anything to reduce residents’ input.

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“Because of the high threshold to win approval, what has been approved has been much better projects,” Sangiolo said. “They have to negotiate with residents.”

The change would be voluntary. Towns could decide whether to stay with the supermajority or lower the threshold. And first the measure must win approval in the Legislature.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his members had yet to review the proposal but would probably prefer it to statewide zoning changes being proposed on Beacon Hill that could override municipal governments.

“Local decision-making is very important to us,” Beckwith said. “We’re a complex state, and there’s no such thing as one size fits all.”

That’s the thinking behind Baker’s proposal, too. The Housing Choice Initiative, which does not need legislative approval, would award $10 million a year in grants to cities and towns that meet certain housing-production thresholds and enact housing-friendly zoning changes. Municipalities that do not take part wouldn’t face any penalties. They wouldn’t see the extra money, either.

It’s the sort of thing that sends a message that housing is a regional challenge, in need of a regional solution, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. It has estimated that Greater Boston will need to add 435,000 housing units by 2040 to keep up with demand. And the plan gives a boost to towns that want to help.

“The whole key to achieving our goals is whether or not communities across the state will build more housing,” Draisen said. “This creates an incentive for them to do just that.”


Tim Logan can be reached at tim.logan@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.