In a sign of how difficult it has been for Massachusetts to tackle its mounting housing crisis, a modest bill that would make it easier for cities and towns to build more homes — only if they want to — has been in legislative limbo for two years and counting, despite broad support and a months-long push for passage by Governor Charlie Baker.
During that time, other states facing similar housing shortages have taken action. New York’s legislature strengthened rent control. Washington lawmakers passed a slate of bills designed to promote construction. Oregon enacted the nation’s first statewide cap on rent increases, and eliminated single-family zoning in most urban areas.
But in Massachusetts, long considered a progressive state, measures that aim to ease restrictions on construction and blunt some of the nation’s highest housing costs have gone nowhere.
The latest incarnation of Baker’s bill, called Housing Choice, fizzled before Thanksgiving when lawmakers broke for the year without voting on it. The measure has been a Baker priority this year, but remains stuck in committee as lawmakers focus their energies elsewhere. It is intended to make it easier to push housing developments through local governments, by allowing changes in local zoning with a 50 percent-plus-one-majority of a city council or town meeting, instead of the two-thirds approval now required.
The Housing Choice bill could yet become law. State officials — who say the rule change would help Massachusetts reach its goal of creating 135,000 additional homes by 2025 — plan to renew their push for passage when lawmakers return to formal session in January. But, if anything, opposition to the bill from people concerned about overdevelopment has only grown the more it has been discussed. The lack of progress has frustrated housing advocates.
“I’m trying to be eternally optimistic,” said Rachel Heller, executive director of Citizens Housing and Planning Association, an affordable-housing group that has advocated for the bill. “I hope these other states will serve as inspiration to Massachusetts that we can do this.”
This wasn’t supposed to be so complicated.
When the Baker administration first pitched Housing Choice two years ago, it specifically designed the law to protect long-cherished local controls over zoning, unlike some other Beacon Hill housing efforts that have tried to mandate denser development. Protecting local autonomy won Baker the support of the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns. It also swayed developers and housing groups who saw it as their best chance in years to pass a bill that might make it easier to build in at least some communities. Opponents, at least publicly, were scarce.
But the bill foundered at the end of the formal 2018 legislative session, after some advocates pushed for more ambitious zoning changes. It died again in informal session last December when progressive lawmakers urged more protections for vulnerable tenants. In February, Baker hosted a flashy rollout ceremony for Housing Choice and dispatched top aides across the state to drum up support. But lately, the bill has begun drawing fire from elected officials in municipalities such as Needham, who wrote in a letter to their state lawmakers that the two-thirds rule encourages “sound and community-supported” planning, with “proven benefits.”
And legislative leaders have also sent mixed signals on the bill. In late October, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka said they’re interested in some type of housing legislation, but gave no timeline. Representative Kevin Honan, the Brighton Democrat who cochairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, said he supports Baker’s bill and wants to move it to the full House for a vote in the spring, but he isn’t sure it has the votes to pass.
“We do have a housing crisis and this seems to be a very helpful proposal,” Honan said. “I’m hopeful we can build enough support.”
Meanwhile, other states are moving quickly to do something about the high cost of housing.
In February, Oregon became the first state to institute statewide rent control — capping increases at 7 percent per year — and requiring that landlords provide “just cause” for eviction. In July, lawmakers there followed up with a measure that ended single-family zoning in cities of 10,000 or more people, allowing duplexes or, in metro Portland, four-family buildings to be built anywhere.
California, too, passed bills that cap rent hikes and streamline often-thorny local permitting processes for housing. In several Western states, the politics of housing has changed in recent years, said David Garcia, policy director at the University of California Berkeley’s Terner Center for Housing Innovation. More middle-class families in expensive markets such as the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California are being squeezed by high housing costs. Their concerns are starting to outweigh the interests of traditionally powerful real estate groups and local governments.
“Folks at the lower end of the income spectrum have always struggled with housing costs,” Garcia said. “It hasn’t been until those pressures crept up the income scale that more legislators have really taken notice. Now it’s too big for any of them to ignore.”
Something similar has played out in Washington state, said Dan Bertolet, a researcher at the Sightline Institute in Seattle, which advocates for environmental sustainability. Like Massachusetts, Washington has a large and prosperous city, strong-willed suburbs, and vast stretches with slower growth. Despite those differences, they all struggle with housing costs, and that has made building a coalition to tackle them easier.
While Washington housing advocates’ most ambitious plans have fizzled, they did successfully campaign for laws that legalized more backyard apartments — long a priority in Seattle — and make it harder to sue and block certain zoning changes. Next year, Bertolet said, they’ll be back with more forceful ideas, and a new tack to overcome suburban resistance to zoning changes that come from the State House.
“We’re trying to develop ways to talk about local control that don’t freak people out. But it’s hard,” he said. “Local control sounds like democracy, even though sometimes it can be the opposite.”
That’s the argument that Massachusetts housing advocates and Baker have made for the Housing Choice bill. They note that under current rules a vocal minority can block zoning changes supported by a majority of a city council or town meeting’s members. That is what has happened over the last year in Salem, Arlington, Cambridge, and other communities where zoning proposals won a majority of support but fell short of the needed two-thirds approval.
Housing advocates say those votes mean fewer homes will come on the market to help keep rents and sale prices in check. Making them a little easier to pass won’t fix the state’s housing crisis but it would help, said Tamara Small, CEO of the real estate trade group NAIOP Massachusetts.
“I haven’t given up hope on this one,” she said. “There’s no perfect housing bill, but this is about as close as you can get.”