Massachusetts Legislature seeks solutions to persistent housing crisis

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Brianna McKinley
BU News Service

BOSTON – Aby Pacheco prefers to drive to work. But since he and his wife own just one car, he usually takes an Uber or Lyft the 30 minutes from his house in Abington to the MBTA stop in Braintree. He cringes at the price, which can be up to $18, even when he shares with other riders.

From there, he hopes the inbound delays are minimal enough that he can still punch in on time at his job in Back Bay. On a bad day, when traffic crawls and parking is scarce, he can spend up to two hours commuting each way. But the alternative was leaving his job in the city.

“It was just impossible,” Pacheco said, describing his search for an affordable house for his growing family within a reasonable distance of Back Bay and Cambridge, where his wife works. “The only solution will be for us to buy a new car so that we can both drive to work and take the kids to day care, even with the hassle of insurance, gas money, traffic, and finding parking once you’re there. We just couldn’t afford a place any closer.”

Massachusetts has enjoyed a considerable amount of economic growth in the past few years, attributed in large part to the scientific and technical services sectors. Incomes in the commonwealth are among the highest in the country, the unemployment rate has hovered around the lowest in over a decade, and the state’s highly ranked universities and health care centers continue to draw newcomers to the state.

But for people like Pacheco looking to call Massachusetts home, their biggest obstacle may be in finding one. Despite the prosperity, the sheer lack of affordable housing has been a persistent issue throughout the state and has the potential to halt recent economic success.

The problem has been growing for a long time. After producing 30,000 new housing units every year for four decades, that number has fallen to 8,000 to 10,000 new homes per year in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, the state home prices have increased at the fastest rate in the nation (six fold as of last year) and the state’s rent prices were ranked seventh highest out of all states in 2018.

Demographic changes are also contributing to what many describe as a housing crisis. Baby boomers who have retired or are planning to in the next few years are opting to stay in the state. New workers looking to fill those jobs will add to the already hefty deficit in housing units.

Although the labor boom is mostly within the professional sphere, the incomes generated by these well-paid jobs create demand for jobs in all sectors, some of which are moderately-paid or lower-paid positions, according MassBenchmarks, a program of the Economic and Public Policy Research Group at the UMass Donahue Institute.

In a report released in July, the group found that “the capacity of Massachusetts to provide all of these new workers with adequate housing and transportation options is a major concern, and will continue to weigh heavily on the commonwealth’s ability to attract and retain the workforce it will need to sustain its economic expansion.”

Barry Bluestone, professor emeritus of political economy at Northeastern University and the founding director of the Dukakis Center, agrees that access to affordable housing serves as a linchpin for other statewide issues, such as reliable transportation and employment fulfillment.

“When a young, bright person that wants to come to Boston to work at one our hospitals or research facilities is selling their house for $40,000 elsewhere and looking to buy one here that costs $250,000, that serves as a serious deterrent,” he said. “The high housing cost will make it more difficult to fulfill our workforce needs.”

This argument is the crux of Gov. Charlie Baker’s push to combat the housing shortage through the administration’s Housing Choice Initiative, which includes a plan to produce 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

“If you can’t produce housing, you can’t solve any of our problems,” Baker told reporters at a Feb. 27 news conference announcing the legislation.

The bill would enable cities and towns to pass zoning regulations by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority. It is identical to one proposed in the last legislative session, but which never came up for a vote, despite a large number of advocates.

The swath of support has only grown since then. The list includes the Massachusetts Association of Realtors; NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association; the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts; and the Boston Real Estate Board.

Perhaps most notable among them is the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit advocacy and service association that represents all 351 cities and towns in the state. Executive Director Geoff Beckwith says the board of directors unanimously supports Baker’s bill because they believe it will facilitate faster housing production without sacrificing local control.

“The governor has pulled parties together and proposed something that will remove a high hurdle for a change in local zoning codes,” he said. “But the local boards would retain their authority to make the decisions and to establish the pace and nature of the buildout of their communities.”

But critics of the bill say one word has been missing from the discussion: affordability.

“I’m glad the governor aims to produce housing across the region, but it’s not just the number of units. We have to address this housing emergency in a comprehensive way,” said Rep. Mike Connolly, D-Cambridge, who was among those in the Legislature that opposed Baker’s bill last session.

“In the communities I represent, we see a lot of housing being built, but the vast majority is luxury homes that are out of reach for most working people,” he said. “I am filing legislation to improve on what the governor has proposed that includes tenant protections and public investment in affordable housing.”

Connolly’s initiative would allow municipalities to create rules on their own to protect tenants from eviction, even if that means putting a limit on how much they are asked to pay. Currently, this type of rent control can only be achieved with approval from the Legislature, the result of a 1994 ballot initiative.

Others worry that potentially easing zoning regulations will create a strain on existing infrastructure and public school systems. Although most areas in central and western Massachusetts have plenty of land available, substantial new housing may require costly updates to sewer systems, roads, and utilities. Cities like Framingham are concerned about increased enrollment, but the majority of towns in the state face declining enrollments with the capacity to absorb new students.

But Beckwith cautioned that amendments to the bill is what caused it to stall last session and that Connolly and others are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“Municipal officials, Realtors, homebuilders, and developers all support the bill,” he said. “But the minute Beacon Hill tries to completely take over local zoning, municipal associations will back away. It would be unfortunate if some stakeholders and parties want to hold out forever for their own perfect solution.”

Bluestone echoed that concern. “Rep. Connolly’s objections are perfectly valid,” he said. “But when you put these window decorations in, we defeat something valuable because we’re trying to make it better. We need a clean bill so it can get passed and then focus on other aspects of it, even if it means getting it piecemeal.”

However, Connolly said the pressure to pass a clean bill stems mainly from lobbyists, not his colleagues in the Legislature.

“Commercial real estate lobbyists, among others, have decided that they like the governor’s bill and only his bill,” he said. “I believe in the value of debate and to see what’s possible by addressing this issue in a comprehensive way.”

One thing that everyone can agree on is that a solution is necessary – and fast.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who supports Baker’s bill, emphasized the urgency of the problem at the Feb. 27 news conference.

“The folks who pour your coffee and pour your beer and you enjoy seeing working downtown are fast not being able to live in the city where they work,” she said. “The character of our community is at risk right now.”

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