Danielle Cerny

Addressing the housing crisis in Massachusetts will be a defining challenge for the state’s next governor. Making progress on this commonwealth-wide challenge will hinge on the actions of cities and towns and the strength of state-local partnerships. 

Consider the state’s new MBTA Communities regulations, which require communities to rezone for denser, multifamily housing near T stations or face loss of MassWorks funding. Municipalities are weighing this potential loss against the cost of compliance: lengthy rezoning processes that could run up against fierce resident resistance.  

As communities consider ignoring the new regulations, some suggest the state should set a higher penalty for inaction. But the next governor won’t succeed with iron-fisted tactics. They must work side-by-side with cities and towns to pursue shared goals and reduce the cost of local action. 

Don’t Abandon Community Compact 

Fortunately, there’s a roadmap to build from. Over the past eight years, the Baker-Polito administration has deployed a “community compact” approach to local collaboration that supported tangible community development gains and forged a strong working relationship between the state and municipalities.  

New administrations often feel incredible pressure to abandon the ideas of their predecessors, but there is an opportunity for the next governor to build on the four foundational components of this strategy to advance their own affordable housing goals. 

First, the new administration must show it’s serious about this issue. Within weeks of taking office, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito used their first executive order to commit to a strong partnership with cities and towns and to establish structures for following through on that promise, including naming the lieutenant governor champion of the effort. Whether it be the lieutenant governor, a new dedicated housing secretary or someone else, the next administration should start by identifying a senior-level official with power and responsibility for making affordable housing a priority across state government.   

Next, the new administration must engage cities and towns in developing and implementing affordable housing solutions. The community compact strategy used several effective engagement tactics, including surveying local leaders on how the state could be a better partner and consistently deploying cabinet members to every municipality – not just the most populous or politically advantageous ones. The new administration can adapt these strategies to ask communities how the state can make it easier to expand affordable housing options in every city and town. 

But it’s not enough to just collect responses, executives must follow through on the feedback they receive. For Baker and Polito, that meant crafting and ultimately passing an omnibus municipal reform bill – an early, visible show of follow through on local input. The next administration must be prepared to hear what changes and supports localities need and to act on that feedback. 

State Has Other Carrots Still Unused 

Third, the state needs to strengthen municipalities’ capacity to implement housing solutions. Many cities and towns are operating on tight budgets with limited staff. This makes it difficult to manage day-to-day operations, let alone take on big, new zoning reforms. A successful strategy must reflect and address the diversity of local resources and priorities.  

Baker and Polito understood this when they created the Community Compact Program, in which municipalities select from a menu of local “best practices,” like developing a capital improvement plan or strengthening financial management strategies, based on their goals and needs. In exchange, the state provides small-dollar grants or technical assistance to support implementation. 

The next governor can build on this popular program by creating an affordable-housing specific version. To do so, the administration would work with cities and towns to develop a menu of strategies for expanding the state’s stock of affordable housing, such as updating zoning to allow for accessory dwelling units by-right and running a resident education campaign on the need for expanded local housing options. Localities would select housing strategies that align with their unique priorities and assets and would receive financial and technical assistance from the state to help translate menu options into action. Such an approach respects local choice while driving progress on state-wide housing goals. 

Finally, the next administration should make it as simple as possible for municipalities to unlock state housing resources. To streamline economic development supports, the current administration created the Community One Stop for Growth, which consolidated the state’s numerous, hard-to-navigate community development grants; provided guidance on how communities could strengthen their grant applications; and created a new state-level responsibility for connecting municipalities to best-fit resources.  

The next administration could double down by either increasing the One Stop’s existing focus on affordable housing resources or developing a dedicated Affordable Housing One Stop. This would leverage the state’s holistic view of available supports and leave localities with more time and money to engage residents and implement housing solutions. 

Ultimately, the Baker-Polito approach to community development improved localities’ abilities to deliver for residents – it would be a shame for the progress made on state-local collaboration to disappear. Instead, by building on this approach, and adapting it for housing-specific goals, the next administration can reduce the cost of action for cities and towns and help bridge the gap between an ambitious state-level housing agenda and actual change on the ground.  

Danielle Cerny is a joint visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston and Taubman Center for State and Local Government, the former deputy chief of staff for Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and the author of a recent report for the Rappaport Institute, “Empowering Cities And Towns: The Baker-Polito Approach To Local Collaboration And Capacity Building. 

For Housing Progress, Take a Page from the Baker-Polito Playbook

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min