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Chesto Means Business

Can housing reform survive a hall of mirrors?

Governor Baker made housing his topic at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
Governor Baker made housing his topic at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast.(Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Governor Charlie Baker made it sound like a bill to spur more housing construction should be a no-brainer, an easy win for the Legislature.

Baker was back at it on Tuesday, stumping for a housing bill during his annual appearance at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. This will be Round 2. Baker tried in the last legislative session. But time ran out, much to his chagrin.

Speaking to about 700 people at the Westin Copley Place hotel, Baker sounded incredulous that the Legislature couldn’t pull it off. Baker said he doesn’t know of any opponents to the core premise: lowering the voting threshold that’s needed in cities and towns to make various zoning changes, from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority.

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Baker said everyone seems to agree Greater Boston’s dwindling supply of affordable options is an increasingly big problem, one that forces many workers to live far from their offices.

But the State House, as Baker put it, is sometimes “a hall of mirrors.”

Baker returns to the State House of Mirrors on Wednesday — with his new housing legislation in hand. It will resemble a bill that the Legislature’s housing committee endorsed last year, based on the simple-majority requirement Baker has pushed all along.

The committee bill also would have expanded that requirement to include certain special permit requests, for projects with an affordable housing component. Expect that idea to resurface.

Baker warned that lawmakers would make a grave mistake if they fail again to pass a housing bill.

So can they? It sure seems possible, when you consider the dynamics that doomed the bill last year. Back then, several advocacy groups had wanted to add their own pro-housing provisions, complicating the debate.

Among those ideas: require municipalities served by the MBTA — think suburbs along the commuter rail lines — to include zones that specifically allow for multifamily housing.

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Baker doesn’t appear ready to endorse that proposal.

Key housing advocates eventually backed off — but not in time to move the bill forward before formal sessions ended on July 31. Efforts to revive the bill in informal sessions, when one lawmaker can block a bill, also failed. Some progressives, such as Representative Mike Connolly, want a more comprehensive approach, one that includes tenant protections, too.

A new two-year session brings a fresh slate. Those housing advocacy groups now appear ready to embrace the Baker bill as a first step — the proverbial bird in the hand — with the hope more changes will come in 2020. For example, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance’s executive director, Andre Leroux, said his group backs a bill from Senator Harriette Chandler that combines the simple-majority changes Baker wants with a twist: establishing a task force that would eventually recommend additional reforms.

Builders and developers are eager: They say the two-thirds requirement can be a high bar to clear, one that has put the kibosh on worthy projects.

Broader business groups are also paying attention. The Greater Boston Chamber plans to make Baker’s bill a top legislative priority. Carolyn Ryan, a senior vice president at the chamber, said the issue has reached a breaking point for many employers. It’s tough to fill jobs if the people you want to hire can’t afford to live here.

The Legislature’s inability to pass a housing bill prompted the chamber’s CEO, Jim Rooney, to ask Baker the obvious question on Tuesday: Has comprehensive reform become the enemy of targeted reform? Or, more simply put, has perfect become the enemy of good?

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Baker responded: “Maybe.” But he has to be hoping the answer is more like “maybe not.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.