This post was originally published as an op-ed in Banker & Tradesman on 3/17/19.
Sometimes data can simplify even the most emotionally charged and complicated policy debates. Housing policy is no exception to this rule. Recent data may provide some clarity on how we got to where we are today, as well as how we can begin to address the current housing crisis.
Today there are more people working in Massachusetts than at any other time in the commonwealth’s history. According to the University of Massachusetts’ Donahue Institute, by the year 2040 the Massachusetts population is projected to increase by 600,000, with the fastest increase projected in Greater Boston’s inner core. Boston’s population is growing more quickly than previously expected, with 759,000 residents expected to live in Boston by 2030.
As a result, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) projects Eastern Massachusetts will need 435,000 new units of housing by 2040. However, according to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data, annual housing production is only about half of what it was in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Massachusetts permitting is 36 percent less housing than the national average (based on new housing per capita), ranking us 38th in the nation.
Words Not Enough to Address Crisis
At the current pace of housing construction, the commonwealth will be more than 90,000 units short of demand by 2030.
At the same time, permitting requirements have become more onerous with local rules and special bylaws, making the development process longer and more unpredictable. Appeals frequently delay the start of a project by one to two years or often kill the project altogether. To complicate matters, construction inflation is at 6.5 percent in the Boston market – higher than the rest of the nation.
The lack of housing is now approaching crisis level. The number of communities with median prices above $1 million has doubled in the past decade. As a result, the shortage of workforce housing is now a significant threat to our economic growth. Business leaders frequently struggle to attract the best talent when competing with other states that provide more affordable housing opportunities.
While tackling this issue will require a multi-pronged approach, the data show that this is, in large part, a supply and demand issue. Without more housing production it is becoming very clear that the state’s potential to grow its skilled workforce will be at risk.
Many Massachusetts communities are now recognizing, some for the first time, they need to do more to encourage growth. The 15 members of the Metro Mayors Coalition late last year announced a target to create 185,000 new housing units across the region by the year 2030. It is a laudable goal and these communities should be applauded for their leadership. However, simply saying you want housing does not create it. Actionable steps are needed to achieve this goal.
Fortunately, An Act to Promote Housing Choices (House Bill 3507), recently filed by Gov. Charlie Baker, provides a clear framework for cities and town to encourage new housing production.
Bill Helps Communities That Want to Change
The legislation, which is supported by a broad coalition including the Massachusetts Municipal Association, NAIOP – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association and the Smart Growth Alliance, among others, makes it easier for communities to work with developers to encourage sustainable growth.
The legislation allows cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority. This would be allowed in situations where the zoning change will encourage more concentrated development including the adoption of 40R “Smart Growth” districts or starter homes, reduced parking requirements, accessory dwelling units and/or reduced minimum lot sizes.
This legislation also includes a provision, added during the last legislative session by the Joint Committee on Housing, that would reduce the voting threshold for a local special permit to a simple majority. This would apply to multifamily or mixed-use projects with at least 10 percent affordable units that are near transit or in commercial centers.
While there is no one silver bullet to solving the housing crisis, the supermajority threshold has long been a barrier for needed housing developments throughout the commonwealth. This legislation would make it easier for communities to rezone property to encourage more housing production.
During the legislative session that concluded in July 2018, the bill came close, but did not pass. Since then, housing advocates, planners, developers and municipal officials have come together to support the passage of this legislation. On behalf of this remarkable coalition, we urge the legislature to pass this bill as quickly as possible. The time for action is now.