News & Resources

Momentum for more housing choices in the state

Lawmakers need to create incentives
for communities to increase housing stock


Jan 2, 2018

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER joined the fight to promote housing last week—adding more push to the consensus that 2018 is the year to tackle the commonwealth’s housing crisis head on.  As we head into the 2018 session, it’s time for the Legislature to pass bills that will make it easier for our cities and towns to produce more housing while creating healthy, walkable, and equitable communities.

The governor announced a housing production goal, incentives to encourage city and town officials to back housing, and targeted legislation to make it easier for officials to get good housing measures approved.  All are great steps supported by smart growth and housing advocates.

In fact, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance had proposed legislation with similar “opt-in” programs, most recently in a bill that the state Senate passed last June. This has been a key plank of our “Great Neighborhoods” campaign, and kudos to the Baker/Polito Administration for making it happen.

Baker’s announcement continued the momentum generated recently by 14 metro mayors, led by Boston’s Marty Walsh and Somerville’s Joseph Curtatone, who launched a regional housing partnership. Over the next six months, the mayors will collaborate to set a regional housing production goal, address local zoning deficiencies, and develop effective housing strategies.

Over the past year, the Legislature has already been working on a significant housing and zoning reform bill. The “Great Neighborhoods” campaign seeks, like Baker and the mayors, to build more multifamily housing and accessory (“in-law”) apartments. However, our campaign goes further to provide municipalities with 21st century zoning and planning tools, curb sprawl, and allow for more predictable permitting in all communities.

With housing costs rising in Greater Boston, there is a moral imperative for everyone to act. Too many low- and middle-class families are precariously housed. This instability lowers school performance, creates immense public health costs, and even prevents residents from being engaged citizens.

At the same time, the economic future of our commonwealth requires that we attract and keep the young talent that drives our innovation economy.

Recognizing the crisis, Baker set an aggressive but realistic goal of producing 135,000 more homes by 2025. This number is consistent with our needs—and doable if we start in 2018.

The new Housing Choice program rewards municipalities for building housing. Cities and towns qualify by creating a certain percentage of units over the prior five years, or by a combination of production and adoption of best practices. The carrot for winning the Housing Choice designation is money, including a dedicated grant program, technical assistance and priority funding for state capital dollars.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance salutes the governor for encouraging communities to address local barriers to housing and smart growth. We should do more to address the state-level barriers as well.

In addition to incentives, we think there should be a healthy discussion about some minimum standards across the state. All communities have a role and responsibility to address housing injustice and affordability.

There are also many places where we need statewide consistency and modernization, considering that Massachusetts zoning law has not been significantly updated since 1975. Areas ripe for reform include: special permits, board training, master plans, appeals, and site plan review, to name a few.

The Senate passed a zoning reform bill in June 2016, which was refiled this year by Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler. The House is working on its own version.  Both bills directly tackle such issues in addition to building multifamily housing in more communities, making accessory apartments easier, and prohibiting discrimination in zoning decisions.

The “Great Neighborhoods” coalition is ready for the next steps.  Our advocates range from housing and economic justice organizations to environmental and mobility groups to business and municipal leaders and we’re building a strong grassroots base to help pass this much-needed reform.

As a commonwealth, we dug ourselves into this housing crisis by limiting the housing we allowed for several decades.  It will take hard work to dig our way out, but momentum is clearly on our side. Let’s create healthy communities, keep our region economically competitive, and build more housing by passing these bills.

André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.  Lisa Wong is the former mayor of Fitchburg and deputy director of the Asian American Civic Association.