The Legislature Is Hitting the Halfway Point: What Does That Mean for Commercial Real Estate? From Housing to Climate Change, Key Issues Are on the Table

The following column was published in the September 15 edition of Banker & Tradesman.

With the 2019–2020 Massachusetts legislative session approaching the halfway point, it is a good time to take stock of where things stand and what legislative proposals could affect the commercial real estate industry.  

The current legislative session began in January 2019 and will conclude on July 31, 2020. With more than 7,000 bills filed to date – and more expected – Massachusetts legislators have the ability to make dramatic changes affecting every aspect of society.  

As legislators consider proposals affecting commercial real estate and economic development, in general, they must also consider the economy for the year ahead. The Greater Boston market is currently viewed as a stable market for investment; and while vacancy and unemployment rates remain low, warning signs of a coming economic downturn are on the horizon.  

The pace of economic growth in Massachusetts has not kept pace with that of the nation over the past year. In the second quarter of 2019, Massachusetts GDP grew at a 1.4 percent annualized rate, while U.S. GDP grew at a 2.1 percent rate. In addition, in August, the 10-year Treasury yields fell below the rate on 2-year notes for the first time since 2007. This inverted yield curve has been an indicator of coming recessions for the past 50 years.  

This, combined with escalating trade wars and geopolitical uncertainty, highlight the need for careful consideration of the potential statewide impact of legislative proposals.  

While it is nearly impossible to predict how the session will end, legislative leaders have expressed an interest in tackling some significant policy issues including tax revenue, housing and climate change. Given the impact these issues will have on commercial real estate, the details matter. 

Transfer Taxes  
Revenue has been a popular word on Beacon Hill in recent months, with numerous transfer tax proposals filed. The bills all seek to create revenue for a variety of funding priorities, including affordable housing, climate change, education and transportation.  

However, the transfer tax is not the best approach to adequately address these issues, particularly since the revenue will be pegged to the real estate market. 

With anticipated market instability, these taxes many not serve as a stable funding source. If passed, they will increase the cost of housing and commercial development, which has the potential for negative ripple effects throughout the economy. 

Climate Change  
Given the environmental, public health, safety and economic development threat posed by climate change, legislation on this issue is expected this session.  

The House passed H. 3846, An Act Relative to GreenWorks, in July. It is a $1.3 billion energy and resiliency bill designed to offset climate change, creating a new grant program for cities and towns throughout Massachusetts to fund projects focused on climate resiliency. It is modeled after the successful MassWorks infrastructure program and builds on the Environmental Bond Bill passed in 2018.  

Climate change affects all residents of the commonwealth. Therefore, the burden for addressing this issue should be shared.  

Unlike transfer tax proposals, which only target a subset of the population and may drive up the cost of housing, GreenWorks is a far more equitable approach and should be a top priority for the legislature.  

Housing  
Finally, one of the most significant economic issues in need of legislative action is the current housing crisis.  

The supply of housing is not keeping up with demand, which in turn is driving up rents and home sale prices. An Act to Promote Housing Choices (H.3507) provides a clear framework for cities and town to encourage new housing production.  

The bill, which has the support of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the real estate industry, affordable housing groups like CHAPA and business leaders, allows cities and towns to adopt zoning best practices by a simple majority vote, rather than the current two-thirds supermajority.  

Whether it’s senior housing or multifamily housing, countless units are never built because of the need for a supermajority vote. Given the broad support for this bill, the legislature needs to act on this legislation in advance of spring town meetings, where countless projects will be up for review at the local level.   

While these are only a few of the issues expected to move this session, it’s clear that decisions made at the State House over the next 10 months will have a significant impact on the real estate industry for years to come. NAIOP will continue to work with legislators to ensure that the economic impacts of legislation are considered and that Massachusetts remains a great place to live and work.  

Mass Municipal Association and Real Estate Community Join Together to Support Housing Choice Legislation to Create Much-Needed Housing Across the Commonwealth

Today the following statement was issued in support of An Act to Promote Housing Choices (H.4290):

The Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, NAIOP—The Commercial Real Estate Development Association, and the Massachusetts Municipal Association, join together to express our strong support for H. 4290, An Act to promote housing choices. In its current form, this important bill is a unique opportunity to increase the much-needed supply of housing in Massachusetts.

As reported favorably by the Joint Committee on Housing, H. 4290 represents an unprecedented consensus by the major stakeholders to advance housing development. This narrowly tailored bill addresses the state’s need for housing while respecting the important role municipalities play in determining whether new housing is built. It does so by eliminating one barrier to housing production – the need for a supermajority vote of Town Meeting or a city council to approve zoning changes for housing and smart growth planning.

To encourage cities and towns to adopt zoning that supports sustainable housing production, the Department of Housing and Community Development created the Housing Choice Initiative. That program rewards communities that produce new housing and adopt best practices to promote smart growth with grants and technical assistance. Passage of H. 4290 will make it easier for communities to achieve Housing Choice designation.

Unlike another legislative proposal now before House Committee on Ways & Means (H. 4397), which would rewrite the Zoning Act in ways that are complicated, controversial, and would hinder the production of housing, H. 4290 contains no mandates or other provisions that are opposed by all of our organizations.

According to the UMass Donahue Institute, “the challenge for Massachusetts going forward will be to address the housing, transportation, and infrastructure constraints that make it more difficult for the workers who will be needed to fill these positions to relocate to the state and meet the needs of growing employers. While this challenge is not new, the price of inaction is high and rising.” Massachusetts is one of the most expensive states in the country in terms of housing affordability. It is critical that we do not complicate or increase housing costs by enacting legislation that would further worsen the existing problem.

Together with the recently enacted Housing Bond Bill, H. 4290 can make a significant impact on the Commonwealth’s historic shortage of housing. We respectfully urge the legislature to pass this important bill before the end of the formal session.

 

NAIOP Supports Baker-Polito Housing Legislation

housingpressconference
On Monday, NAIOP was pleased to join Governor Baker, Lieutenant Governor Polito, and Undersecretary Chrystal Kornegay to support a new initiative to increase housing production in the Commonwealth. The Administration’s Housing Choice Initiative creates a new system of incentives and rewards for municipalities that deliver sustainable housing growth. It also creates a new technical assistance toolbox to empower cities and towns to plan for new housing production and proposes legislative changes, through An Act to Promote Housing Choices, to deliver smart, effective zoning at the local level. (A section by section summary of the bill is also available.)

NAIOP believes the production of workforce housing is critical for the continued growth of the Massachusetts economy and we are pleased to support this initiative. Unlike the extremely problematic zoning legislation that is supported by planners and environmental groups and opposed by the real estate industry and municipalities, this bill does not include language that would hinder the production of housing. Instead, it rewards communities that are producing new housing units and have adopted certain best practices with a new Housing Choice Designation.

Cities and towns that receive the Housing Choice Designation will be eligible for new financial resources, including exclusive access to new Housing Choice Capital Grants, and preferential treatment for many state grant and capital funding programs, including MassWorks, Complete Streets, MassDOT capital projects and PARC and LAND grants.

Under the legislation, the following local zoning changes would require only a majority vote of the local legislative body:

  • Reducing dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes, to allow homes to be built closer together.
  • Reducing required parking ratios, which can lower the cost of building new housing and accommodate development on a smaller footprint.
  • Creating mixed-use zoning in town centers, and creating multi-family and starter home zoning in town centers, near transit, and in other smart locations.
  • Adopting “Natural Resource Protection Zoning” and “Open Space Residential Development.” These zoning techniques allow the clustering of new development while protecting open space or conservation land.
  • Adopting provisions for Transfer of Development Rights (TDR), which protects open space while creating more density in suitable locations.
  • Adopting 40R “Smart Growth” zoning, which provides incentives for dense, mixed-use development in town centers, near transit, and in other “smart” locations.
  • Allowing accessory dwelling units or “in-law” apartments – small apartments in the same building or on the same lot as an existing home.
  • Allowing for increased density through a Special Permit process promoting more flexible development.

While it does not mandate that any town adopt these zoning best practices, it does remove the barrier of having to convince a supermajority of the legislative body to adopt them.  

Unlike the zoning bills referenced above, this bill has the support of all of the key players – municipalities, business groups, housing advocates, environmental groups, and real estate. NAIOP looks forward to working with the Baker Administration and the legislature to advance this important legislation, which will be an important step in truly addressing the housing crisis facing Massachusetts.