Coming soon, to a city near you: the 2019 Baker Housing Production Tour.
Governor Charlie Baker and his team are hitting the road to promote his housing bill, to avoid a repeat of last year, when it died in legislative limbo. Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito headlines the tour’s first stop: Millside Park, Easthampton, on Thursday.
The Western Massachusetts city of 16,000 might seem like a funny place to kick this off. After all, the median home price there last year was a relatively modest $260,000.
But Baker wants to show that the problems with getting housing built in Massachusetts aren’t limited to the super-hot communities within Route 128. With that in mind, the far side of the Connecticut River might be a perfect place to start. Other tour dates could involve Baker, Polito, or his housing chief, Mike Kennealy. The band heads to Williamstown, Salem, and Barnstable within the next few weeks.
The bill, in essence, would make it easier to get important zoning changes passed with a simple majority, as opposed to a two-thirds vote. Think building homes closer together, reducing parking requirements, spurring taller buildings near train stations or town centers. The voting threshold would also drop for special permits, for certain projects in which at least 10 percent of the units are deemed affordable.
So what killed the bill in the last two-year legislative session? It apparently didn’t go far enough, at least not for some housing advocates and progressives in the Legislature. Supporters hope the housing discussion on Beacon Hill can be split this time around: Move Baker’s bill first, and then try to tackle the other issues, such as tenant protections.
The bill might still inflame some who worry about eroding local control. Baker flips that thinking: He says big, important decisions are being turned over to a minority of councilors or town meeting members. These zone changes often hinge on one or two votes.
Baker points to a saga in Salem, next to his hometown of Swampscott. The City Council narrowly rejected in the past few weeks an overlay zone that would have encouraged housing in vacant churches and city buildings. It needed eight of 11 possible votes to pass. Similar zoning battles are playing out in Arlington, Braintree, Cambridge, and Newton – to name just a few places.
Baker says the downsides of inaction have become clearer, to more people. Nearly everywhere he goes, Baker hears from local officials vexed by the political challenges inherent in making zoning changes that would lead to more housing.
Count Nicole LaChapelle among them. The Easthampton mayor is just over a year into the job, and has big plans. Approving accessory apartments, a.k.a. “granny flats.” Building more housing in the downtown. Reviving a site on Route 10, once intended for a Stop & Shop. Baker’s bill could help with her to-do list.
Homes in Easthampton may be cheaper than those in neighboring Northampton. Still, prices have risen 16 percent in the past two years, according to Warren Group data. Would-be buyers often face bidding wars, LaChapelle says, and rental apartments are nowhere to be found.
She sees the hot economy as a big opportunity to add housing units. But it’s a window that won’t stay open forever.
Baker says he remains optimistic about his bill, based on his conversations with leaders of both parties, in the House and the Senate. The lawmakers, he says, recognize that sluggish housing production is a “problem approaching a crisis.” They realize something has to give.
Hitting the road can drum up media coverage and local endorsements, outside of the Boston bubble. Will it be enough? Few things are certain on Beacon Hill. Baker senses he’s close. Maybe his Housing Production Tour can get the bill across the finish line this time.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.