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 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: 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: Non-Essential Shutdown – What It Means for CRE

All Non-Essential Businesses to Cease In Person Operation, Stay at Home Advisory For Two Weeks
Today, 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. The Baker-Polito Administration issued a list of designated businesses and other organizations that provide essential services and workforces related to COVID-19 that shall continue to operate brick and mortar facilities during this two-week time period. Last week, NAIOP, ICSC and GBREB issued this request in preparation for a such a situation.

We were, therefore, pleased to see that “Construction Workers who support the construction, operation, inspection, and maintenance of construction sites and construction projects (including housing construction)” are listed as essential. In addition, “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” are also listed as essential. We are seeking clarity on what this means for communities that have shut down construction.  

E-Notary and Smoke & CO Detectors
Friday, after a letter was issued by NAIOP and several other groups, Governor Baker issued guidance on smoke and CO detector inspections to allow home sales to move forward. It allows the requirement to have smoke and CO detector certificates transferred from the seller to the buyer as long as both sides agree in writing. We expect the e-notary legislation to move soon.  

Permit Tolling
NAIOP has been working very closely with the Mass Municipal Association on language that addresses the tolling of permits during this time. We have been in constant contact with legislators and the Administration on this issue. Final language is expected to move soon. We are also pushing for a Permit Extension Act to address the significant number of projects affected by this.  

Donate Supplies to Help Fight COVID-19
The business community is working to support the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub to help coordinate efforts to try and bring additional supplies and resources to our state’s healthcare institutions so they can continue to test and treat patients with COVID-19.

NAIOP is asking our member companies to consider how they may be able to help, specifically in donating lab, testing, and diagnostics supplies, personal protection equipment (PPE), and medical and scientific expertise needed to combat COVID-19. Please fill out the following survey to let us know what you can donate: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/TVP69NJ

NAIOP will continue to advocate for policies, Executive Orders and legislation that address how this public health crisis is affecting real estate and overall economic development. We are working on numerous initiatives. Please feel free to reach out to CEO Tamara Small or Government Affairs Associate Anastasia Nicolaou if you have any questions.  

NAIOP Joins Mass. Municipal Association, Housing Advocates and Business Leaders in Support of Housing Choice Legislation

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On May 14, NAIOP’s CEO Tamara Small testified before the Joint Committee on Housing in support of H.3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices. If passed, the bill would enable cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices related to housing development by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority.

Small testified on a panel with representatives from a coalition of groups responsible for permitting and building housing throughout the Commonwealth including Jon Robertson, Legislative Director at the Mass Municipal Association; Benjamin Fierro III, Counsel to the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of MA; Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board; Robert Brennan, President of CapeBuilt Development; and Kathleen Franco, CEO of Trinity Management. The group expressed their strong support for the bill, which would make it easier for communities to enact local zoning changes that encourage housing development.

In her testimony, Small underscored the importance of partnerships between developers and the communities. “Any successful housing development requires a partnership between the developer and the community to ensure that the project addresses local needs,” said Small. “The legislation preserves that partnership by requiring a majority vote, while making it easier for communities to rezone property to encourage more housing production.”

Throughout the hearing, mayors, housing advocates, and business leaders, including Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem, Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the Smart Growth Alliance, CHAPA, and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable testified in support of the bill and called on the Joint Committee to report H. 3507 out favorably.  

NAIOP will continue to advocate for passage of the bill as soon as possible. Because communities enact zoning changes at annual Town Meetings, quick passage of this bill is needed to ensure that implementation of these important reforms is not delayed another cycle.