News & Resources

The Other Housing Choice

More than a bill, it’s a program that supports communities building housing
by Andre Leroux, Executive Director, MA Smart Growth Alliance

During the course of my work life, I’ll occasionally run into a consultant who helped draft a plan in a community I know well.

“I worked there about 15 years ago,” they might say. “It was a great process, lots of creative ideas, good engagement from the community. What ever happened to that?”

To which I’ll often respond: “You did a plan for that area?”

Over the last 30 years, Massachusetts policies have often encouraged and rewarded cities and towns for making plans to build housing. Unfortunately, many of the documents sit on shelves forgotten while the housing fails to get built. Given the bitter opposition of many homeowners to new apartments, good intentions haven’t translated into enough real homes outside Boston.

Origins of the Housing Choice Initiative

We at the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance have worked for years to modernize our state’s zoning laws, last updated in the mid-1970s. A key piece of that strategy has been to establish an incentive program for cities and towns to move beyond planning and build the units. In fact, the State Senate debated and passed a comprehensive zoning bill in June of 2016 that included this language:

“The secretary of housing and economic development… shall develop a municipal opt-in program to advance the state’s economic, environmental and social well-being through enhanced planning for economic growth, land conservation, workforce housing creation and mobility. The program shall include guidelines and criteria to evaluate municipal applications. Applications meeting program guidelines and criteria shall receive status as a certified community. Certified communities shall be entitled to certain privileges and powers and shall be required to provide certain incentives to benefit persons seeking local permits and local land use approvals.”

The comprehensive zoning bill didn’t survive the legislative session of 2016, but Governor Baker’s administration went ahead and created a similar program—the Housing Choice Initiative, launched in December of 2017. This was a major accomplishment.

Designation of communities

Since then, 79 cities and towns have become Housing Choice communities. Because the designation lasts for two years, the 69 municipalities that helped launch the program the first year in 2018 must now re-apply along with any new communities. The 2020 application period for HCI designation has just opened, and you can see here for details about how to apply.

One of the most appealing benefits of becoming a Housing Choice community is having exclusive access to the Housing Choice Capital Grant program, which makes awards of up to $250,000 from an annual pot of about $5 million. To address the different needs of rural communities, 20% of the total funding is reserved for towns with a population under 7,000 (max award $100,000).

In addition, Housing Choice communities receive special consideration for 9 other state capital programs: Clean Water Trust loans, MassWorks, Seaport Council Grants, Complete Streets, MassDOT capital projects, and Executive Office of Environmental Affairs programs including Planning, LAND, PARC, and Gateway City Park grants.

The Clean Water Trust perk is especially beneficial, since HCI municipalities obtain a discounted interest rate of 1.5% rather than 2.0% on their water infrastructure loans. By the calculations of HCI program director Chris Kluchman, the Housing Choice communities that have already taken advantage of this benefit will save an aggregate of $13 million over the life of their payments.

Kluchman has been pleased to find that most of the communities that have qualified for HCI designation have done so by increasing their housing stock at least 5% or 500 units over the last 5 years. Other communities may also qualify by having a 3% or 300 unit increase in the last 5 years in addition to meeting a certain number of best practices (including some that advance affordability).

The impact

“There’s been a huge amount of energy around housing,” says Kluchman. “The Boston Globe and regional papers have had a lot of coverage about housing issues. Regional Planning Agencies and communities have been creating housing production plans. There are beefy conversations around housing and the Housing Choice program participates in those in a helpful way.”

To help communities access the resources they need to be successful, Kluchman leads an interagency working group to coordinate technical assistance. Meanwhile, she herself has made over 85 presentations to local audiences around the state to educate them about the HCI, best practices, and state housing resources.

Governor Baker has set a state goal of 135,000 new homes from 2018-2025, which comes out to an average of 16,875 each year. The first year’s numbers for 2018 came to 17,044, which met the target by a whisker. The housing permit data comes from the Census, although those figures may not be entirely accurate because of variations in the way communities report their data as well as human error in counting. Kluchman’s own testing of the numbers suggest an undercount of 10-15%, which could indicate that we’re doing a little better than the Census numbers suggest.

“I think we’re doing okay,” says Kluchman. One concern is that despite the historic housing market, we’re barely hitting the average number, so any economic slowdown may make it difficult to achieve. Even without newcomers to the state, we need additional housing units to accommodate older residents who are downsizing, new families looking for their first home, and to halt rising prices.

During the first two years of the Housing Choice Initiative, 61 capital grant awards totaling nearly $10 million have been made (including 21 to rural towns) and have helped create 800 housing units. The funding can support improvements not covered by developer mitigation fees. For example, many projects use the awards to improve sidewalk connectivity and pedestrian safety around the new housing. Other uses have included park improvements, public safety equipment, water and sewer upgrades, design and engineering services, and even a community visioning process.

Next steps for the program

When I ask Kluchman what would make the HCI program more impactful, she brings up the Governor’s Housing Choices bill, which has languished in the Legislature for two years despite support from the Mass Municipal Association, real estate trade associations, Chambers of Commerce, and affordable housing and environmental advocates like the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

“I would love to see the legislation passed,” she said. “I think that would help communities across the state think more about housing, increase conversations, and enable them to enact solutions more easily.”

The Housing Choices bill has no municipal requirements, but makes it easier for them to adopt nine best practices by a simple majority vote rather than a super majority. The best practices include multifamily zoning in smart growth locations, accessory dwelling units, reducing parking requirements, and clustering development to preserve open space. The bill would also make it easier to approve mixed-income housing projects that include at least 10% affordable housing.

Email us if you’d like to advocate for the Housing Choices bill.

There are other ways to extend the impact of the program. Additional support and funding for local planning and zoning improvements, which could be provided by the Legislature, could help cities and towns direct growth to sensible locations. There are some existing programs (including some for which HC communities receive priority consideration) but more is needed.
Finally, a peer support network of planners around housing issues could help increase capacity, knowledge, and savvy of housing laws and regulations across the Commonwealth. This could be combined with access to training opportunities and technical assistance.

Which communities are proactive?

I was curious to know where the Housing Choice communities are located and what it could tell us about housing around the state.

“It was really clear when we first put out the map that I-495 is where it’s at,” said Kluchman. “There’s a lot of growth, solid school systems, lot of demand in variety of ways. But that belt includes many revitalizing Gateway Cities as well.”

In terms of absolute numbers of units, Boston and surrounding communities continue to produce the majority of the state’s housing units, particularly apartments. But the 495 belt is experiencing the highest rate of growth. Other clusters of Housing Choice communities indicate that Worcester and its suburbs are a strong market, as are the college towns in the Pioneer Valley. Towns on Cape Cod and the Islands are adopting many best practices since those communities struggle to provide year-round housing that is affordable to their residents.

One part of the map stands out for what you don’t see. The band along Rte 128 looks almost empty of Housing Choice communities. Those communities have a lot of jobs, well-financed schools, and are not far from Boston. But there’s not a lot of housing production.

Apply for Housing Choice

The online application for designation as a Housing Choice Community is open from now until 3:00 p.m. on Monday, March 23, 2020. 

Here is the link to the ONLINE application form. You can also find a .pdf copy of the application on the web page that you can use for planning purposes. The application must be submitted through the online form.

Housing Choice Community (HCC) designation status lasts for two years, so if your community was designated in 2018, you must re-apply in 2020 to maintain your designation status. Most communities will need to re-apply this year.

The advantages of being designated as a Housing Choice Community include:

  • Eligibility for exclusive Capital Grants
  • Special consideration for 9 other state capital programs (Clean Water Trust loans, MassWorks, Seaport Council Grants, Complete Streets, MassDOT capital projects, Energy and Environmental Affairs Planning, LAND and PARC and Gateway City Park grants)

To find out more about Housing Choice Communities and past grant awards,visit the Housing Choice web page. The Fiscal Year 2021 grant process will begin in spring/summer 2020. If you have any questions about your community’s eligibility or the application, please contact Housing Choice Program Director Chris Kluchman at 617-573-1167.

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