Governor Charlie Baker may be the most well-liked governor in the country. But even popular governors need to call for reinforcements sometimes.
Just ask Baker about his housing production bill. It’s become a signature issue this year, after a previous version slipped away in the waning hours of the last two-year legislative session. Baker and his top aides are relentless in their promotion, in part by touring around the state to gather allies, a veritable Housing Choice Palooza. In the spring, the itinerary took them from Barnstable to Williamstown. Some clever people even handed out tour T-shirts at the Salem stop.
The summer break is over. School is back in session at the State House. It’s time to rev up the tour buses again. First up: a launch party of sorts on Wednesday in the governor’s office, with the state’s past four economic secretaries as the featured guests.
The extended extravaganza is meant to emphasize the widespread support that exists. But it also points to something else: the hurdles that still remain. For some critics, the bill opens the doors too widely to development. For others, it doesn’t accomplish enough.
It’s no surprise the state’s four previous economic chiefs — Ranch Kimball, Dan O’Connell, Greg Bialecki, and Jay Ash — back the bill. Ash was a key point person on this issue as Baker’s last economic secretary, before he left to be CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, taking over for O’Connell in that private-sector job on Jan. 2.
The others all pushed pro-housing policies when they were in the office, too. For them, housing and economic development go hand in hand. It’s harder to persuade employers to move or expand here if the bosses think their workers can’t afford to live here.
At its core, Baker’s bill is simple. The legislation would require a majority vote to pass a range of housing-related zoning changes at the local level, as opposed to the current two-thirds supermajority mandated by state law.
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, for example, lost her bid for a zoning change that would allow multifamily housing in vacant religious and municipal buildings. She had seven votes on the 11-member City Council in February, but needed eight. A few weeks later, Braintree Mayor Joe Sullivan shelved a concept to allow more housing near the Red Line station in his city, after it became clear that the two-thirds majority would be tough to achieve.
These narrow votes come up time and again. On Monday, plans for a zone change to allow 22 units of affordable housing and a self-storage facility in Cambridge come up for a vote at the City Council. Will at least six of nine councilors agree to the project, to be built near Danehy Park? The developer is still unsure.
The governor’s bill remains stuck in committee. Representative Kevin Honan, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing, says the number one complaint he hears from his Allston/Brighton district is the lack of affordable housing. Honan likes Baker’s bill. But he says he also wants to make sure his colleagues are on board before pushing it out of committee.
As with last year, several housing advocates would like the bill to do more. But new provisions also bring political complexity — and with them, possibly more opposition. Honan is also increasingly hearing from critics who worry about overdevelopment; they want the two-thirds requirement to stay. This contingent could become a potent threat to the bill.
Senator Brendan Crighton, the committee’s Senate chairman, sees similar forces at work, although he seems more eager to move a bill along even if a broad consensus can’t be reached in the State House. He says some Senate colleagues would like additional language aimed specifically at spurring more affordable units. Crighton supports one change that would require towns to have some multifamily zoning in place near train stations.
This won’t be a slam dunk, as many supporters once hoped. Both chairmen want to see some form of this bill adopted, quickly. But neither can promise it will move out of committee this year.
This could go down to the wire again, in 2020.
You can bet that Mike Kennealy, Baker’s current economic chief, wants to avoid that fate. He has been relentlessly meeting with lawmakers, trying to win them over. Most are sold. They see the demand back home. But some think the bill goes too far, or not far enough. To Kennealy, the need for more housing has become a full-blown crisis — not just in red-hot Greater Boston, but statewide.
Kennealy says he’ll keep the Housing Choice Palooza tour going until the bill gets passed. He might want to see about commissioning some extra T-shirts.