It’s wind-down time at the State House, as the marble halls go quiet. Lawmakers cast their last roll call votes for the year a month ago. The holidays are fast approaching, after all.
But wait. Is that . . . is that something stirring over there? Is it the housing committee?
Why yes, it is. And guess what’s on the last-minute Christmas shopping list: Governor Charlie Baker’s long-awaited Housing Choice bill.
Housing Choice, you might recall, would do one simple thing: Reduce the voting requirement for a range of housing-related zoning changes and special permits at the local level, from a two-thirds threshold to a simple majority.
This two-thirds hurdle has proven to be a surprisingly tough barrier to clear in many municipalities, with zoning votes often hinging on one or two city councilors or a handful of town meeting members.
Baker sees the bill as an important tool to stimulate housing construction, particularly near transit hubs. So does the business community. But the bill has been stuck in committee, and supporters feared another town meeting season would pass in the spring without new rules for zoning votes.
Maybe not. The housing committee began polling its members Tuesday afternoon to gauge the support for Housing Choice. A favorable vote is expected when the polls close Thursday afternoon.
Senator Brendan Crighton, the North Shore Democrat who is cochairman of the housing committee, largely attributes the delay to a busy fall agenda for the Legislature. Yes, it’s unusual to move a bill of this importance during the normally quiet week before Christmas. But Crighton and his counterpart in the House, Representative Kevin Honan, want to put the Housing Choice bill in the best position for quick action in 2020. They don’t want to see it get stuck in the inevitable bottleneck as the July 31 deadline approaches for floor votes.
That happened in 2018, when Baker’s first effort on Housing Choice died at the end of the two-year legislative session. Back to square one in 2019.
This time around, there was a new complicating factor. A number of lawmakers heard grumbling from their districts about Baker’s bill, including concerns that reducing the threshold to a simple majority could unleash too much development.
Needham’s Select Board wrote to legislators in October, requesting an exemption in the Housing Choice bill for towns and cities where the percentage of housing stock that is deemed affordable exceeds 10 percent. For those communities, Needham officials asked to retain the two-thirds requirement for all zoning and special-permit votes. (Nearly 13 percent of Needham’s housing qualifies as affordable.)
With nearly 70 cities and towns already above that 10 percent threshold, the request is a tough sell to the housing committee. Too many municipalities would be exempt. The committee is making a few tweaks to the bill before sending it along, but Needham’s request will not be among them.
To the Needham Select Board’s chairman, John Bulian, towns such as his have done more than their fair share to address Greater Boston’s crisis in affordable housing. Bulian said Needham officials just want to manage the massive growth their town is seeing. He says he has heard from about a half-dozen other municipalities with similar concerns since Needham submitted its letter. (Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno made a similar request last month, but then quickly rescinded it.)
Bulian hasn’t given up: There’s always the possibility for an amendment during a floor debate in the House or Senate.
About those floor votes: Supporters of the bill have endeavored to keep it as simple as possible, avoiding elements that might draw too much opposition. One such proposal, to require all cities and towns served by the MBTA to have at least one district for multifamily housing, has been included in a separate, broader housing bill the committee is also advancing this week.
These committee votes can seem like symbolic gestures. The real decisions are made behind closed doors in the leadership offices. But there’s more than mere symbolism in play here. Honan has said he wouldn’t want to move the governor’s bill out of committee until he had a good sense it would pass. This committee vote is as good an indication as any that it might finally become a reality.