As Housing Squeeze Tightens, State Lawmakers Weigh Action

The gold dome of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The gold dome of the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By nearly any measure, the Massachusetts economy is booming. Thousands of jobs are being created and unemployment is at historic lows.

The flip side? Try finding a place to live that won't break the budget.

The realities of a housing market where affordable homes, condos and apartments are increasingly hard to come by for middle- and low-income residents has prompted numerous proposals on Beacon Hill for spurring housing development. But so far, there's no consensus.

According to the online real estate database company Zillow, the current median value of a home in Massachusetts is $407,700, up nearly 4% in the last year. The median asking price of currently listed homes is $474,900.

And while buyers are experiencing sticker shock from record-high prices, renters aren't faring any better.

In recent testimony before the Legislature's Committee on Housing, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts' median monthly rent of nearly $2,500 for a two-bedroom apartment is the highest in the nation.

Business leaders fear eye-popping housing costs will sink efforts to recruit or retain talented workers, especially recent college graduates priced out of the market.

"Much like the opioid epidemic, the commonwealth did not get into this housing crisis overnight," Baker told lawmakers. "For the last 30 years, Massachusetts has been producing half of the housing that we were building in the 1960s, '70s and '80s."

Among the culprits in this decline, Baker said, is a century-old state law that requires a two-thirds vote of a municipality's governmental body — city council or town meeting, for example — to authorize zoning changes needed to clear the way for new housing projects.

The supermajority requirement allows a vocal minority in any city or town to block otherwise worthwhile projects, critics contend.

Legislation filed by the governor, similar to one that came up short in the Democratic-controlled Legislature last year, would abolish the law he called "outdated."

Baker ticked off several examples of proposed zoning changes that were backed by more than 60% of town meeting voters, yet failed to reach the two-thirds threshold.

In Salem, seven of 11 city councilors backed a proposal to convert buildings owned by the city or ones no longer being used by religious institutions into affordable multifamily housing. Eight votes were needed.

"7-4, right? That's normally a victory," said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who supported the plan. "But 7-4 when it comes to zoning and smart growth ... is not."

One of several mayors and town officials backing the governor's bill, Driscoll told lawmakers of low-income seniors stuck on long waiting lists for subsidized housing and young adults, many of whom grew up in the city, now forced to leave because they can't afford an apartment.

Many lawmakers argue Baker's plan doesn't go nearly far enough.

Democratic Sen. Jamie Eldridge, of Acton, pointed to a letter sent to the Legislature in February in which the governor wrote his administration's policies would put the state on track for creating 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

"The word 'affordable' is not in that sentence," said Eldridge. "I think there is a fear that if we just change the zoning threshold from two-thirds to majority, you're just going to find more luxury or high-end market rate housing and not affordable housing to make sure everyone in Massachusetts has a place to live."

Eldridge has proposed a $500 million bond bill, financed by a real estate transfer tax, with half the proceeds set aside for public housing authorities and half for nonprofit developers of low-income housing.

Eldridge also wants to require wealthier towns to build affordable multifamily housing, acknowledging that well-to-do communities in his own suburban Senate district fail to do so.

Another bill gathering steam would abolish the supermajority vote for zoning changes, but includes several other provisions.

The legislation sets a goal of creating 427,000 new housing units by 2040, with 20% affordable for middle-income residents and 10% reserved for people with extremely low incomes. The measure also instructs local communities to zone for multifamily dwellings within a half-mile radius of bus, train or other public transit stops.

"Every day that goes by without action is a day that compounds this crisis," said Democratic Rep. Andres Vargas, of Haverhill, who sponsored the bill with Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat who co-chairs the housing panel.

It's unclear when housing legislation might reach the House or Senate floor for debate.



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