Workforce Housing, Not Zoning Bills, Key to Economic Growth

Earlier this week I testified before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Municipalities & Regional Government on two “zoning reform” bills, the Land Use Partnership Act (LUPA) and the Comprehensive Land Use Reform Partnership Act (CLURPA).  Supporters of both bills claim that the legislation would encourage real estate development in Massachusetts.  Representatives from the real estate industry, however, disagree.  NAIOP believes that these bills contain many problematic elements which could hinder economic development at a time when it is needed most.

The bills make a number of changes to Chapter 40A; some would apply statewide and other changes would apply only in “opt-in” communities.  The legislation does have some positive aspects: zoning protections to special permits and site plan approvals, and limiting subdivision rules and regulations to subjects not already covered elsewhere by local ordinance or bylaw (e.g., stormwater management, off-site traffic impacts.)  However, other parts of the bill would reduce existing predictability and add financial risks for new business growth.

The most concerning aspect of the legislation would significantly alter the zoning freeze that exists under current subdivision law.  It would limit the zoning freeze to a specific proposed development plan, rather than just the land shown on a plan.  As a result, the freeze would be lost with any change in project use and/or density.  This would be a serious problem for commercial real estate developers who would be unable to respond to a changing market. 

Commercial projects require large initial investments in land, site work, and infrastructure for developments that are generally phased and take many years to complete. Without the protections of a subdivision zoning freeze that allows for flexibility in project uses as the markets change, financing would be very difficult to achieve and fewer projects would move forward. 

To truly encourage economic growth, the focus should instead be on creating workforce housing.  While housing costs have dropped recently, a lack of single family, smaller scale, higher density homes fuels the exodus of 23-40 year olds – a key population demographic for economic growth.  This is an issue of great concern to business leaders who struggle to attract the best talent when competing with other states that provide such housing opportunities.

If the Legislature is intent on addressing the Commonwealth’s competitiveness and its housing, it needs to take a different approach.  We urge the Legislature to work with the Patrick Administration, municipalities, and the business community to create a new program establishing zoning districts that permit the construction of a modest number of affordable, small, single-family homes.  The future of our workforce depends on it.

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