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Chesto Means Business

State’s new economic development bill will likely make housing a priority

The state’s regions face myriad problems in addressing the housing needs of their residents.
The state’s regions face myriad problems in addressing the housing needs of their residents.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

The Baker administration has been relentless in a quest for its Housing Choice bill. So far, no luck.

So you can’t blame Governor Charlie Baker and his top aides for considering another approach, a Plan B. As the housing bill remains stuck in committee, the administration is weighing other ways to address the crisis by spurring more home construction.

There’s no question Housing Choice remains a front-burner issue for them. (The bill would allow various local zoning requests to pass with a simple majority instead of two-thirds of a city council or town meeting, a threshold that stymies many developers.) But it probably won’t be the only big administration push within the next year to spark more construction.

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No details yet. That said, housing emerged as a clear top priority in a document dubbed “Partnerships for Growth” that lays the groundwork for the administration’s next economic development bill, to be filed by Baker early next year. It will, if history is a guide, be packed with goodies by the time lawmakers are done with it. That means it will almost certainly get all the way to the governor’s desk, a more certain fate than Housing Choice.

First, the administration has to figure out what it wants to put under the Christmas tree. To pull that off, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy just wrapped up five months of deliberations and discussions, a process that took them to all corners of the state to hear from more than 1,000 businesspeople. The resulting plan focuses on four key agenda items: responding to the housing crisis, fostering vibrant communities, helping local businesses become more competitive, and training a skilled workforce.

Out of those four topics, housing came up everywhere Polito and Kennealy went; they were surprised by just how pervasive the issue was, in every region.

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In an interview, neither Polito nor Kennealy offered much in the way of specifics about what they’ll seek from the Legislature in the next “ec dev” bill. But they hinted at the problems they would like to tackle.

Polito says she wants to provide incentives for private-sector investments in areas away from Greater Boston, where a combination of lower rents and persistently high construction costs often discourage developers. Kennealy would like to see more market-rate housing built in “gateway cities” — the former industrial cities that are outside of Boston’s immediate orbit — and more apartments in downtowns in particular.

Solutions to housing problems would be a relief to Pat Begrowicz, who runs the Onyx Specialty Papers plant in the Berkshires. Young engineers at the Lee factory struggle to find starter homes they can afford, she said, and often pick places that are farther away than the tourism-focused communities nearby. It would be great, she said, to see more old mills in her area converted to housing. Begrowicz, who sat on an ad hoc council that approved the Baker administration’s plan last week, also points to General Dynamics in Pittsfield: The major employer struggles to fill jobs in part because there aren’t enough rental apartments nearby or places in walkable neighborhoods.

No, housing production isn’t just a Greater Boston problem; it’s a Massachusetts problem. Just check out the latest numbers from real-estate tracker The Warren Group. Median single-family and condo prices set new records, yet again, in September; they rose 5 percent and 14 percent, respectively, from a year ago. Out in the Berkshires, where Begrowicz’s employees hunt for homes, the median single-family price rose 15 percent.

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The threat is real. The Massachusetts economy is slowing down, according to the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute’s MassBenchmarks reports, in part because companies can’t find enough workers. Part of that problem can be solved by more workforce training — another issue sure to be addressed in the pending economic development bill. But part of it inevitably comes down to this: Finding an affordable place gets harder every year for many of us.

Kennealy and Polito will inevitably add the new document — which will be reviewed at a legislative hearing on Nov. 5 — to the administration’s playbook as they knock on State House doors seeking Housing Choice support. But they also know they can’t stop there to get the job done.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com.