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Governor’s bill to tackle state’s housing crisis is cheered, jeered at legislative hearing

Governor Charlie Baker argued that his housing measure is essential to putting a dent in Greater Boston home prices, which are among the highest in the country.
Governor Charlie Baker argued that his housing measure is essential to putting a dent in Greater Boston home prices, which are among the highest in the country.(Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)

A State House hearing Tuesday highlighted the broad support for a bill that Governor Charlie Baker says is key to tackling Massachusetts’ housing crisis. But it also illustrated the narrow political path Baker must navigate to make the bill a law.

An array of housing advocates, developers, business leaders, and local officials spent hours urging a legislative committee to bless the bill, which would allow cities and towns to change their zoning with a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds vote currently needed. Baker came before lawmakers to argue the measure is essential to putting a dent in Greater Boston home prices, which are among the highest in the country.

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“If we continue to do nothing, then the current trajectory we’re on . . . is just going to keep going,” he said. “There are communities that have just been zeroed out by developers as not possible [to build in]. They don’t even try.”

But the measure is still eyed skeptically by tenant groups, who say it doesn’t go far enough to create affordable housing or prevent evictions. And at least one lawmaker questioned whether some Boston suburbs can support more construction.

That kind of skepticism torpedoed a similar bill in the legislative session that ended last summer. Now Baker is trying again, pushing for a vote as soon as possible this year and barnstorming the state to build a coalition of supporters.

Tuesday, those supporters returned the favor, filling the State House’s Gardner Auditorium and telling the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing over and over again how making it easier to build would be good for Massachusetts.

“We are in a deep hole,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “We simply are not producing enough housing, and our home prices and rent are out of sight.”

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They pointed to numerous examples where the need for a two-thirds majority stymied zoning changes that enjoyed strong support.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who hosted Baker on his barnstorming tour last month, pointed to a recent effort to rezone shuttered schools for affordable housing that fell short despite winning by a decisive majority on the City Council.

“What’s holding us back is votes that are 7 to 4,” she said. “That’s normally a victory. But 7 to 4, when it comes to zoning, is not a victory.”

Few have objected — at least publicly — to the broad aims of Baker’s bill. But it drew fire Tuesday from tenant groups who say it will fuel high-end development while offering nothing to lower-income renters at risk of losing their homes. At one point, dozens of advocates lined up across the auditorium, cheering lawmakers who pushed for more tenant protections.

“The people we work with are wary of anyone who says, ‘If you give me what I want now, then later I’ll give you what you need,’” said Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing Boston, which serves low-income renters. “And when we talk about affordable housing, we should be sure to ask, affordable to whom?”

Despite the bill’s focus on local decision-making — which is key to support from the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association — at least one lawmaker said he worried that in some towns it will fuel more development than the road networks and water systems can handle.

“Where, exactly, is the water going to come from, the traffic infrastructure?” asked Representative David DeCoste, a Republican from Norwell. “How many cars is all this additional development going to translate into on Route 3?”

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Then there are advocates who say this should be just the first step in a more comprehensive reboot of how housing gets built in Massachusetts.

There are several bills circulating on Beacon Hill this session that would give back to cities and towns the ability to impose rent control, require multifamily zoning near MBTA stations, and make it easier to create so-called “accessory dwelling units” — garages and basements that are converted into housing.

All three options had supporters at Tuesday’s hearing.

Balancing those ideas is partly why bills like this have struggled to pass Beacon Hill, said Representative Kevin Honan, the Brighton Democrat who cochairs the housing committee.

“Zoning reform like this has died for 12 or 14 years in a row because some people think it goes too far, and other people don’t think it goes far enough,” Honan said. “It takes a lot of oxygen to keep this going.”


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