With roll call votes ending for the year, lawmakers raced to pass heavy-duty bills before time ran out early Thursday morning: $1.4 billion in extra school funding, restrictions on cellphones in cars, a ban on flavored tobacco products.
Missing in action: Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, among his biggest legislative priorities. A year ago, the legislation nearly made it to the finish line. This year, supporters couldn’t even get it out of committee, let alone to a floor vote.
Lawmakers can return to the bill next year. It is widely viewed as the Legislature’s best shot at meaningfully addressing our housing crisis, one that is pronounced in Greater Boston where high home costs push people to live farther away from their jobs. Simply put, the bill would reduce to a simple majority the current two-thirds majority voting threshold for a number of housing-related zoning changes at the local level.
In 2018, some housing advocates argued it didn’t go far enough, stalling it. But in 2019, opponents argued the opposite: that it goes too far. Case in point: The Needham Select Board and the mayor of Springfield both sent letters to lawmakers in recent weeks, asking for an exemption for the nearly 70 cities and towns where at least 10 percent of the housing inventory is deemed affordable. Their argument? We’re already doing our fair share.
It’s almost impossible to imagine housing advocates going along with this idea — so many communities would be exempt.
This hasn’t been easy for the Baker administration. Mike Kennealy, Baker’s top economic development aide, has orchestrated a veritable Housing Choice Palooza tour to promote the bill, taking him and his cohorts from Williamstown to Provincetown.
Governor Charlie Baker told me neither House Speaker Bob DeLeo nor Senate President Karen Spilka has made a commitment to him about getting the bill done. Baker argues this state’s anemic rate of housing production can’t continue, not if we want to meet the needs of our growing workforce. In particular, he worries about the fate of downtowns that can no longer survive on retail alone.
The two leaders of the housing committee, Senator Brendan Crighton and Representative Kevin Honan, happen to support Baker’s bill. Crighton says the Senate understands the urgency around the issue, but the House holds the majority of committee seats. Honan, meanwhile, doesn’t want to move a bill out the door until he knows it will pass on the floor.
At this rate, it’s all but certain the bill can’t get done by the time the spring town meeting season rolls around. Another lost opportunity.
So what gives? Some speculate Baker needs to be more aggressive in his deal-making, to offer something up to legislative leadership in return.
Others point to the recent municipal elections. In many places, mayoral and city council races essentially became referendums on the future of local development. One good litmus test was in Revere: Mayor Brian Arrigo’s challenger, Dan Rizzo, campaigned on a promise to halt apartment construction for two years. Arrigo — the “pro-housing” candidate — won. Lawmakers may have been waiting to see how that race and those in other cities played out.
The emerging opposition from some cities and towns may be the biggest factor. The Massachusetts Municipal Association has endorsed the bill. But that isn’t stopping its members from speaking their mind.
Just look at what went down in Needham, the town where Baker grew up. Select Board Chairman John Bulian says 12.7 percent of the town’s housing qualifies as affordable, a solid amount for a suburban town and exceeding the state’s 10 percent goal. Bulian says communities doing more than their fair share for affordable housing construction shouldn’t be penalized, and should retain the two-thirds voting requirement. The board doesn’t normally sound off about state policy, but it sought such an exemption in the bill by writing to state lawmakers last month.
Bulian says he has talked to several other municipal leaders who agree. Among them: Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who wrote to his state delegation on Nov. 15, saying the two-thirds requirement is based on sound land-use planning. Springfield has worked hard to achieve the state’s affordable housing goals, he argues, but the simple majority threshold might still be useful in spurring laggard towns to catch up.
Plenty of mayors are still crying out for Baker’s bill. They regularly hear from constituents who are priced out of their cities. Kim Driscoll of Salem says a measure to expand the amount of accessory apartments died at the City Council last month; it had a majority of support, but not two thirds. The super-majority threshold also delayed an ordinance that would allow housing in old religious and municipal buildings in the city, though a version finally passed in September.
Baker’s housing legislation may have once seemed like a simple ask, maybe as close as significant bills come to a slam dunk on Beacon Hill. Not anymore.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.