COVID-19 Shows Value of Collaboration and Local Leadership Massachusetts Has Come Together with Kindness and Common Purpose

By Tamara Small

This column first appeared in Banker and Tradesman on Apr 5, 2020

Uncharted territory. Those are the two words that seem to be used when anyone tries to describe our current COVID-19 world. Children are out of school, entire economic sectors have been decimated, the global and local economy is in freefall – and the end is unknown.   

As the unemployment numbers skyrocket and the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to grow, it is difficult to find any positive news. However, here at NAIOP we’ve seen several local examples that we should all acknowledge and applaud.  

Public and PrivateSector Collaboration  

In Massachusetts, this pandemic is exposing the grace of who we are, as residents and businesses stand strong in the fight to save lives. We see this with the establishment of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub. As it quickly became clear that demand was outpacing supply at many healthcare institutions, the private sector stepped up.  

The Massachusetts Biotech Council, Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, Conference of Boston Teaching Hospitals and Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council came together, launching the Supply Hub to bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they could continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19 safely.  

In response to the call for donations, hundreds of companies from a wide range of sectors including janitorial companies, colleges, and construction firms stepped up to donate everything from masks and goggles to swabs and tubes. While we still have not caught up with demand, this effort made a dramatic impact and provided a streamlined way for businesses throughout the commonwealth to supplement the local and national supply chain. 

In another extraordinary example of community solidarity, the Boston Society of Architects has begun soliciting nominations for buildings, facilities or infrastructure that may be adapted to become alternative hospital sites. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health  has issued guidance to permit the use of alternative, acute inpatient care spaces to care for patients during this public health emergency. Working with cross disciple teams, the architecture, engineering and construction community is working with property owners to assist state government officials with identifying, evaluating, documenting, and retrofitting buildings or other facilities identified as viable hospital facilities. Preparing for the worst is an essential part of crisis planning – this work will save lives. 

Legislative Compromise  

The closure of non-essential businesses and the shutdown of most aspects of society have resulted in the need for executive orders and emergency legislation on a wide range of issues. Municipal governments have been particularly challenged since town halls are shuttered, Town Meetings are delayed, and annual budgets are uncertain at best. For real estate developers, navigating the permitting maze at the local level became more challenging as the permit application process, deadlines, and hearings became unclear.  

Responding to this new challenge, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA and NAIOP Massachusetts – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, worked together, drafting language that gave predictability and protections to municipalities and developers. As of this writing, the language, which is included in An Act to Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19, was passed by the House and Senate and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. 

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. 

This legislation provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are struggling to process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, the bill balances the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that current permits are not impaired by the emergency declaration. No town or developer wants to see a project that has received local approvals become a blighted, abandoned site, and this language ensures that projects can get up and going as soon as this crisis ends.   

Examples of Leadership 

Finally, Gov. Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, legislators and all the hardworking staff who support them must be recognized. They have focused on protecting the most at-risk residents, addressed business, health and public safety challenges and provided comfort during this unprecedented time.  

Throughout the commonwealth, we have seen local community leaders follow this example. From local food banks to neighborhood groups, we have seen unprecedented kindness and grace as everyone works together to flatten the curve and save lives. Restaurants are providing free meals for students in need, essential grocery store workers are keeping our food systems open and, last but certainly not least, every person working in the health care sector is working tirelessly to save lives.  

Every day is a step forward, navigating a difficult path. As Massachusetts, and the world, continue to operate in today’s reality, it is important to remember that we are all in this together. As a former governor of Massachusetts once said, let our first instinct be kindness – and as Mayor Walsh said during his address to the city, there’s nothing we can’t do when we stand together. 

COVID 19 Update: Governor Signs Bill Tolling Local Permits and Other Issues Affecting CRE

Governor Signs Bill Tolling Municipal Permits

Today, Governor Baker signed H.4598, An Act to address challenges faced by municipalities and state authorities resulting from COVID-19. This bill addresses many challenges faced by local governments throughout the Commonwealth during this time and includes language that addresses the tolling of local permits and is supported by the Mass Municipal Association, NAIOP MA, and the Home Builders & Remodelers Association. The language, found in Section 17 provides necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are unable to timely process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, these changes balance the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that their current permits are no impaired by the emergency declaration. 

House Passes Commercial and Residential Eviction Moratorium

On Thursday, April 2, the House passed H. 4615, An Act providing for a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the COVID-19 Emergency . The bill enacts eviction moratoriums for both commercial and residential tenants. The bill now moves to the Senate.

Small Business Administration Clarifies Paycheck Protection Program

Late yesterday, the Small Business Administration (SBA) issued an interim final rule that provides additional guidelines and requirements for its Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) aiding small businesses affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The interim rule provides increased clarity on several key issues. It specifies underwriting expectations and allows lenders to rely on borrower documentation for loan forgiveness without verification – if the borrower attests that it has accurately verified the payments for eligible costs. This provides increased protection for lenders should borrowers misrepresent information. Additionally, the guidance states that after seven weeks, lenders may request that SBA purchase the expected forgiveness amount of PPP loans. It also allows banks that are already certified as 7(a) lenders to begin approving loan applications with SBA delegated authority starting today, April 3.

Cambridge Issues Construction Guidance for Still-Active Sites

On the evening of April 2, the City of Cambridge released guidance for currently active construction sites. The guidance does not change the types of construction activities covered by the existing moratorium, issued on March 18. All contractors undertaking construction projects that have received approval from the Inspectional Services Department or the Department of Public Works to work during the Moratorium shall follow the City’s COVID-19 Construction Guidelines, and are strongly urged to review the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 Guidelines and Procedures for all Construction Sites and Workers. Inspectional Services or Public Works Departments may shut down job sites that are found to be in violation of the City’s COVID-19 Construction Guidelines.Additionally, larger construction sites may require more elaborate reports and worker training plans.

COVID 19 Update: Governor Limits Essential Construction to Housing & Infrastructure, Extends Non-Essential Business Closures

Today Governor Charlie Baker extended his emergency order to close non-essential businesses and his stay-at-home advisory until May 4. It requires all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public.  In addition, the Administration also updated the “COVID-19 Essential Services” categories. Of interest to NAIOP members, the list of “essential” construction related activities was modified so that only construction related to housing (including mixed use with housing) and critical infrastructure are now considered “essential.”  

The revised construction-related activities list is as follows:

-Workers performing housing construction related activities, including construction of mixed-use projects that include housing, to ensure additional units can be made available to combat the Commonwealth’s existing housing supply shortage.

Workers supporting the construction of housing, including those supporting government functions related to the building and development process, such as inspections, permitting and plan review services that can be modified to protect the public health, including allowing qualified private third-party inspections accountable to government agencies.

-Workers such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators, builders, contractors, HVAC Technicians, landscapers, inspectors and other service providers who provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences, businesses and buildings such as hospitals, health care facilities, senior living facilities, and any temporary construction required to support COVID-19 response.

-Workers – including contracted vendors – who support the operation, inspection, maintenance and repair of essential public works facilities and operations, including roads and bridges, water and sewer, laboratories, fleet maintenance personnel, construction of critical or strategic infrastructure, traffic signal maintenance, emergency location services for buried utilities, and maintenance of digital systems infrastructure supporting public works operations. Critical or strategic infrastructure includes public works construction including construction of public schools, colleges and universities and construction of state facilities, including leased space, managed by the Division of Capital Asset Management; airport operations; water and sewer; gas, electrical, nuclear, oil refining and other critical energy services; roads and highways; public transportation; steam; solid waste and recycling collection and removal; and internet and telecommunications systems (including the provision of essential global, national, and local infrastructure for computing services).

-Workers who support infrastructure, such as by road and line clearing and utility relocation, to ensure the availability of and access to needed facilities, transportation, energy and communications.   The previous definition of construction workers was as follows: “

Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)”.

COVID 19 Update: State Permits Extended by Executive Order

Today Governor Baker issued an Executive Order to suspend relevant permitting deadlines and extend out the validity of state permits. It applies to a wide range of state approvals and clarifies that all approvals shall toll during the State of Emergency. It shall remain in effect until rescinded or until the state of emergency is terminated, whichever happens first.

NAIOP is extremely grateful to the Baker-Polito Administration for recognizing the need for this language during these uncertain times.  

Language dealing with municipal approvals, which is supported by NAIOP and the Mass Municipal Association, is addressed in H.4586, which we urge the legislature to advance to ensure predictability for both municipalities and developers.  

COVID-19 UPDATE: MAYOR WALSH EXTENDS ORDER PAUSING NON-ESSENTIAL CONSTRUCTION WORK IN THE CITY OF BOSTON

The following is a press release from the Office of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (March 25, 2020)

BOSTON – Wednesday, March 25, 2020 – Due to the public health emergency caused by the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) Mayor Martin J. Walsh today announced he is affirmatively extending the City of Boston’s order to pause non-essential construction for City of Boston permitted sites. Mayor Walsh first announced this order on March 16, 2020, and sites should have been locked down for safety by March 23. Due to the public health emergency in Boston and across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this pause is still in effect until further notice.   

“The safety and health of construction workers and all residents of Boston is my first priority, and I am not willing to put that at risk as the virus spreads throughout our communities,” said Mayor Walsh. “Large gatherings such as those at construction sites have been proven to escalate the spread of the virus, and Boston must do everything in its power to flatten the curve, and stop the spread of coronavirus.”   

Mayor Walsh is working with various partners including construction firms and the building trades to determine protocols that would allow these sites to safely re-open in Boston.    This policy only applies to projects permitted by the City of Boston. The City will still allow work that is essential to the safety and well-being of Boston’s residents at this time, particularly work related to the COVID-19 public health crisis.  

In addition to these construction projects, the City will, on a case-by-case basis, review requests for exemptions to the temporary construction moratorium. These may be granted by the Commissioner of Inspectional Services (ISDCommissioner@boston.gov) for building-related work or the Commissioner of Public Works for street-related work. These will be granted if they support increased public health and safety and precautions are taken to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among workers.    

Additional details about the order can be found on boston.gov. The guidance order is available online.  

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COVID 19 Update: Baker Issues Guidance Overturning Local Construction Moratoriums

Today, March 25, Governor Baker issued guidance clarifying that the March 23, 2020 Order “Assuring Continued Operation of Essential Services in the Commonwealth, Closing Certain Workplaces, and Prohibiting Gatherings of More than 10 People” supersedes and makes inoperative any order or rule issued by a municipality that will or might in any way impede or interfere with the achievement of the objectives of this order. “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects” are deemed essential.

Therefore, “the Order provides that all construction projects are to continue operations during the state of emergency, but to do so with allowance for social distancing protocols consistent with guidance provided by the Department of Public Health. Local policies, regulations or directives that provide otherwise are in direct conflict with the Order and should be withdrawn.”  

NAIOP had urged the Administration to issue guidance given the lack of uniformity across the Commonwealth on this issue and we are grateful for this clarity.  

COVID 19 Update: Permit Tolling Legislation Filed Today & FAQ on Essential Services

Permit Tolling Bill Filed Today
Today Governor Baker filed HD4974, An Act to Further Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities, School Districts, and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-19. While the bill addresses several topics, Section 9 of the bill addresses the tolling of permits. The language included in the bill is the result of a collaborative effort and many hours of work during the past few days between NAIOP Massachusetts, the Mass Municipal Association and the Home Builders & Remodelers Association of MA.   Specifically, the language provides the following:

– No permit is automatically granted, approved, or denied because a local permitting authority does not act within a time period required by law.
– Any permit that is currently valid will not lapse or expire during the state of emergency, and suspends any time limitation on such permits during the emergency.
– Allows applications for permits to be filed electronically, so as to eliminate the need for in-person filing.
– Suspends any requirement that a hearing on a permit application be held within a certain period of time until 45 days after the end of the state of emergency.  

These changes will provide necessary relief to cities and towns that, due to disruptions caused by the state of emergency, are unable to timely process and hear permitting applications. At the same time, these changes balance the needs of residents and developers by ensuring that their current permits are not impaired by the emergency. We are pushing for quick passage of this bill and we are incredibly grateful to a phenomenal team of NAIOP members who worked tirelessly to perfect this language and reach a compromise. We will keep you posted as this bill advances. In addition, we are pursuing numerous other forms of legislative and regulatory relief. Please contact us if you have any questions or ideas.  

Non-Essential vs. Essential Businesses: FAQ Now Available  
Yesterday Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 Essential Services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers and the public as of Tuesday, March 24th at noon until Tuesday, April 7th at noon. These businesses are encouraged to continue operations remotely.  NAIOP has been inundated with requests from professionals who are not specifically listed. The Administration has launched an FAQ page to address some of the most commonly asked questions.  

In addition, if the function of your business is not listed as essential, but you believe that it is essential or it is an entity providing essential services or functions, you may request designation as an essential business. Requests by businesses to be designated an essential function should only be made if they are NOT covered by the guidance. To request designation as an essential business, please click here  Any questions can be directed to covid19.biz@mass.gov  

Construction Moratoriums Continue & Conflict with Executive Order?
Last night, Somerville ordered all construction projects to cease general operations, establish services necessary for in-use buildings to function, and make their sites safe to the general public by Friday, March 27.  Somerville now joins Boston, Cambridge, and numerous other cities and towns that have put construction moratoriums in place.

We have received numerous requests for clarification on how the Essential Services list, which lists as essential:  “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)” and “Workers to ensure continuity of building functions, including local and state inspectors and administrative support of inspection services who are responsible for the inspection of elevators, escalators, lifts, buildings, plumbing and gas fitting, electrical work, and other safety related professional work”should be interpreted in communities where there is a construction moratorium.   

As of March 23, Mayor Walsh and the BPDA made it clear that they do not plan to lift the moratorium. However, given the sheer volume of questions on this issue and the confusion that exists, we have reached out to the Baker-Polito Administration for guidance on this issue.

E-Notary Legislation Filed
Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that does not allow for e-notarization. On Friday, SD2882, An Act Relative to Remote Notarization During COVID-19 State of Emergency was filed to allow for e-notarization until 3 days after the emergency declaration is lifted. The Real Estate Bar Association has been the lead on this issue, but NAIOP is supportive of the legislation and will be advocating for its passage.