Should municipalities be able to adopt housing-related zoning changes by simple majority?
Mayor of Newburyport
If we act quickly, Massachusetts has an opportunity to dramatically move the needle on a vital need — housing production — by helping local governments take action as soon as this coming spring.
The Housing Choices Act, proposed by Governor Charles Baker and endorsed by the Legislature’s housing committee, would make it easier for communities to enact zoning changes that encourage greater density in housing development. The bill would lower the vote threshold needed to approve local housing-related zoning changes and special permits from the current two-thirds supermajority to a simple majority.
The need is urgent. If the Legislature does not move quickly to approve the bill, we will have lost an opportunity to put real housing production tools in the hands of local officials right when we need them most. Zoning articles that come up for debate in the coming year (or longer) would still require a two-thirds vote rather than a simple majority. This supermajority requirement would surely result in the narrow defeat of many well-intentioned measures.
Adding to the urgency is the fact that economists are warning of a forthcoming recession, which will likely dampen the incentives for developers to build housing. We must act now.
In Newburyport, for example, the local real estate market has not been able to keep up with local demand. Vacancy rates for both rental and owner-occupied units are near zero percent. The shortage in housing contributes to Newburyport having the highest housing affordability gap in the Merrimack Valley region.
Newburyport is pushing to develop more housing, including through our adoption a 40R Smart Growth district in 2015 to produce mixed use, multi-family condos and rental apartment buildings as-of-right within walking distance to the commuter rail station and downtown. But we want to do more. Together with our updated Housing Production Plan, the Housing Choice Act would help spur needed by-right housing production for our community.
The widely supported Housing Choices Act will not mark the end of the important work on housing production and affordability here in Massachusetts, but it represents a significant step forward.
Robert W. Mitchell
Wakefield resident active in community and legislative issues
Governor Charles Baker’s proposed Housing Choice bill would be good news for housing developers seeking to profit from sweeping changes that disrespect our voting rights in order to help realize the administration’s goal of building 135,000 new housing units in six years. This massive initiative is being rushed forward with little regard for the impact it would have on our state — the number of proposed new units is equivalent to adding 13 new Towns of Wakefield.
The most disturbing part of this legislation is the provision that Town Meeting and City Council voting requirements be slashed down from two-thirds to a simple majority for housing-related zoning changes — special permit approvals for housing projects would similarly be reduced to a simple majority. Lowering these voting thresholds would encourage our local politicians to create many crowded projects with insufficient parking. Giveaways to the industry would also increase the destruction of our remaining open space.
These harmful changes would ensure new zoning overlays will march over our communities. Because our voting rights in Town Meetings and City Councils are being significantly weakened, local attorneys will be able to easily steamroll any opposition to their plans.
Fundamental issues of land use have required a two-thirds majority for generations — and for good reason. It is not unreasonable that when residents or businesses invest in land or buildings that those owners have confidence their properties will not be adversely impacted by rezoning. The two-thirds majority rule provides at least some insurance against that. We all know of shocking property developments that beg us all to say “Who put that thing in town!”
I do favor legislation to assist those climbing up the housing ladder, but that can be done wisely without undermining individual voting rights and unfairly giving special development rights to the few, denying the same for the majority of taxpayers.
Taxpaying citizens that fund our government deserve the same voting rights for all land issues to ensure good planning for all, in the communities we love. Let’s hope the Legislature defeats this bid to trample on zoning vote protections that keep New England desirable today and into the future.
This is not a scientific poll. Please vote only once.