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Stalled Housing Bill 'Primed For Passage,' Mass. Municipal Association Chief Says

Local officials offered Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito "an absolute yes" when she asked Tuesday if there were any opportunities she and Gov. Charlie Baker should seize in the final weeks of 2018 to advance stalled housing production legislation.

Calling in to a meeting of the Local Government Advisory Commission, Polito drew a chorus of head nods and yeses when she posed the question about Baker's "housing choices" bill over speakerphone.

Baker filed the bill, which lowers the threshold required for local zoning changes and creates new housing growth incentives for municipalities, in December 2017. The Housing Committee in March sent a version of it (H 4290) to the House Ways and Means Committee.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, did not bring the bill to the House floor before formal sessions ended for the year on July 31, and House leaders also did not surface for debate an alternative bill that had broad support among representatives.

Baker believes the bill could still be approved during informal sessions, where debate is not allowed and objections from even one lawmakers can stop any bill from moving.

"The answer from the MMA and all the coalition partners we've been working with is an absolute yes," Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said. "We believe that this legislation is primed for passage, it is well thought-out, it has broad support, there are no announced opponents to this legislation. We are hopeful that in the remaining weeks of the legislative session that the measure can move forward, that it can get to the governor's desk and communities will be able to move forward with zoning changes."

After the end of formal sessions this summer, both Baker and Rep. Kevin Honan, the House chair of the Housing Committee, raised the possibility of the legislation passing during informal sessions.

Despite support from the governor and real estate groups, Honan said then that there had been lingering concerns among some members of the House, including some progressives who wanted to see an affordability component and other lawmakers who did not want to see any erosion of the authority of local boards.

The municipal association, which is part of a coalition that has been pushing for the bill to advance, said Tuesday it will continue urging lawmakers to pass the legislation before the end of the year.

If the bill does not pass this session, it would need to be reintroduced before the new Legislature in January, and would be subject to a hearing and committee review before it could come to the floor for a vote in either branch.

Beckwith said speedy passage is critical because many communities can approve zoning changes only at town meetings that are held in the fall or in the spring. He said acting on the bill now could "potentially accelerate housing production by more than a year just because of the way the calendar works."

Polito said she was "always looking optimistically at this issue," and told Beckwith she would be glad to talk with him later about strategies for advancing the bill in an informal session.

The bill would drop the threshold required for zoning changes from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

"To be able to have the opportunity to have less of this high bar to move housing forward I think will be helpful to the commonwealth," said Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, who said a smart growth district in her city "almost went down," coming in just one vote over the threshold.

Holaday said the MMA was "really concerned" about continuing the effort and getting the bill refiled next session if necessary.

"We're hoping that you will file, refile this bill, lieutenant governor, but we don't know that yet," she told Polito. "But the MMA is willing to step up and support efforts in that avenue in any way that we can."

Baker, who was re-elected to a second term last week, had pegged the bill as one of his priorities for this session and brought it up on the campaign trail as a goal he would continue to pursue.

Along with the Massachusetts Municipal Association, members of the coalition that back the bill include the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, the commercial real estate development association NAIOP, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

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