We will learn this fall how serious lawmakers are about easing the state’s housing crisis.
After a summer off, the Massachusetts Legislature is back on Beacon Hill with a substantial to-do list that includes an education funding overhaul, new rules for distracted driving and a ban on plastic shopping bags. Also on the agenda is a proposal that Gov. Charlie Baker says will help spur the growth of affordable housing for the state’s low- and middle-income families. Baker’s plan would ease local zoning restrictions by allowing cities and towns to change local zoning laws with a simple majority vote. Currently, a two-thirds vote is required.
Making the change would go a long way toward adding at least 135,000 homes statewide over the next five to seven years, Baker said. But lawmakers have been dragging their feet; the bill remains stalled in committee, and never made it to the floor in the last legislative session.
“Almost everybody who touches this issue says this is a problem, and we need to do something about it,” Baker said Wednesday. “The problem is we haven’t done anything about it.” New zoning rules would have been a key tool in cities such as Salem, where city officials are trying to create an overlay district that would allow for vacant church or municipal properties to be converted to housing. The City Council voted 7-4 in support of the measure last March, falling a single vote shy of the two-thirds needed for passage.
“There are a lot of proposals that got more than 50% of the vote this past year,” Baker said. “It was heartbreaking to watch them go down because they were really good projects in places that needed them.”
That was certainly the case in Salem, which the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has estimated must create 136 new units a year to meet its projected need in 2030. That’s a far cry from the current pace of 60 units a year. If Baker’s bill is passed this year, he said, cities and towns could begin working on zoning changes in the spring. “I think from our point of view, now’s the time, and we really need to get this done,” he said.
We agree. A legislative year that ends without action on affordable housing would be a failure.