20 May Lowell Sun: Path to a better housing market
Source: Lowell Sun
May 20, 2019
A Statehouse hearing Tuesday brought out broad support for a bill Gov. Charlie Baker says would help ease the commonwealth’s housing crisis.
An array of housing advocates, developers, business leaders, and local officials spent hours urging a legislative committee to approve the bill, which would allow cities and towns to change their zoning with a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds vote currently needed.
Baker came before lawmakers to argue the measure is essential to putting a dent in Greater Boston home prices, which are among the highest in the country.
“We are in a deep hole,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “We simply are not producing enough housing, and our home prices and rent are out of sight.”
That’s reinforced by every sales and price report compiled by housing-industry analysts, which consistently show increasing prices.
As of March, the year-to-date median home sale price of $365,000 in Massachusetts is up 4.9 percent over last year. And that data indicate sellers are getting far higher prices based on proximity to the Greater Boston area.
According to the Warren Group, the highest year-to-date median home prices in mainland counties are in Suffolk ($520,000), Middlesex ($508,000), Norfolk ($490,000), and Essex ($430,000).
The bill the governor promoted closely mirrors his initial 2017 legislation.
These zoning changes must still be decided by individual communities, which can either opt for the simple majority vote or keep the status quo. However, those that adopt the updated zoning will gain access to capital grants and up to $2 million in MassHousing technical assistance to help them reach affordable-housing goals.
The governor’s proposal already has received favorable reviews from a cross-section of stakeholders, including the Commercial Real Estate Development Association of Massachusetts, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Many of the state’s major private employers – who know firsthand how the high cost of housing affects their ability to recruit and retain talent – also endorse the governor’s bill.
We’re certain the Baker administration would be the first to agree this legislation won’t solve all the state’s housing deficiencies, but it’s a vital first step.
Apparently, that’s not good enough for some legislators and housing advocates, who, when this bill was first proposed, said they wanted to see zoning reform go further to include tenant protections and affordability.
Baker’s bill still evokes skepticism among those tenant groups. That mindset torpedoed a similar bill in the last legislative session.
Chris Norris, executive director of Metro Housing Boston, which serves low-income renters, exemplified that tunnel vision at the hearing: “And when we talk about affordable housing, we should be sure to ask, affordable to whom?”
Affordable to a wide swath of the middle class currently locked out of the housing market. Forced instead to be renters, they drive up the prices that in turn leaves lower income individuals with fewer housing options.
The House passed legislation last session that reflected the governor’s goals.
But that same myopic, dissenting view of a few could again sink the governor’s bill if the Senate again does nothing but sit on its collective hands.