News & Resources

Senate Housing Report Advances Smart Growth

The Massachusetts State Senate issued a special housing report on Wednesday with 19 recommendations. Smart growth proposals include:

  1. Leveraging state land to develop additional affordable housing, particularly near public transportation;
  2. Property tax relief for low-income homeowners in exchange for the option to purchase the property down the road for permanent affordable housing;
  3. Requiring every municipality to allow apartments to be built in one or more suitable locations;
  4. Adequate resources for the Smart Growth Housing Trust Fund;
  5. Support for Community Land Trusts;
  6. Allowing home owners to create “accessory dwelling units” on existing properties; and
  7. Mandatory training for local Planning and Zoning Boards.

The Special Housing Commission, which included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, was created by Senate President Stan Rosenberg to address the housing crisis in the Commonwealth.

Since most of the real power to achieve housing production is on the local level, zoning is a big target.  The report calls out our zoning reform bill, Senate Bill 2144: An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities, in particular, for further exploration by the Legislature.

The report proposes additional ways to lift zoning barriers:

One is to require every community to allow some reasonable level of multifamily housing.  A third of our 351 communities allow only single family homes and 207 have not permitted a building with more than 5 units in over a decade.  With millennials and downsizing baby boomers demanding multifamily housing, this is a major reason why rents and prices are up.  This proposal is already in House 1111 promoted by CHAPA, an Alliance member.

At a time when the average number living in a household is falling, many single family neighborhoods consist of homes that have become too large for present needs.  Yet, local zoning makes it difficult for residents to adapt their homes by adding an accessory unit for relatives or to rent.  The State Senate report recommends allowing one accessory dwelling unit “as of right” on any lot that is above a reasonable minimum size.

State-owned land is potentially a key asset for affordable housing.  If the State can lease these properties to affordable housing developers at below market value, the economics could work.  This is a particularly important strategy for areas close to public transit, where land values—and gentrification– are rising.  Last fall, Governor Baker embarked on a program of leasing state properties, but most state agencies would need new state law to sell or lease below market value.

An intriguing idea in the report is creating a new program, by local option, for municipalities to offer property tax relief to seniors and/or persons with moderate income in return for the right of first refusal when the home is sold.  When the homeowner is ready to sell, the municipality can assign that right to an affordable housing developer.

There are many other great ideas in the report, which you can read by clicking here.  Senators Linda Dorcena-Forry and Harriet Chandler led the Commission and deserve enormous credit for their approach. They and their staffs ensured that the diverse set of stakeholders talked with each other and found common ground.

Now it is time to get many of these ideas into law.