From the laudable words in her inauguration speech last week, it seems like Gov. Maura Healey wants to surpass former Gov. Charlie Baker as our most pro-housing leader of the 21st century – no mean feat. 

Before it was popular on Beacon Hill, Baker courageously stood up for the importance of building more housing in the commonwealth. For four years, starting in December 2017 when he first unveiled An Act to Promote Housing Choices, he hammered away at the single, simple idea that Massachusetts needed to make it easier to change local zoning laws.  

It was a fairly moderate, modest effort to attack the “paper wall” of regulations keeping developers from meeting Massachusetts’ need to put significantly more roofs over more heads. And he was criticized for it. Local officials said it would reduce communities’ ability to vet developments. Others, including this newspaper, called him out for seeming to bring a garden hose to a house fire. 

But Baker stuck with it, even through a grueling first year of the COVID-19 pandemic when someone less committed to solving our housing issues could have let the idea fall by the wayside to focus on literal life-or-death decisions. Indeed, by then Housing Choice had already endured an difficult first two years of life, at first being met with a cool reception on Beacon Hill, then dying an ignominious death in the summer of 2018. 

Baker’s persistence, which included a statewide tour highlighting the benefits of new housing and examples of current zoning law’s ludicrous effects, paid off. He eventually secured the passage of Housing Choice in January 2021, yes, but more importantly his sometimes-lonely crusade – along with housing advocates’ outside efforts – opened the door to a much bigger discussion of our housing problems and how to fix them. 

That ferment also gave cover for a much more ambitious effort to require transit-oriented multifamily zoning across the MBTA’s network, now known as the MBTA Communities zoning reform, to get passed alongside Housing Choice.  

A direct line can also be drawn between the housing conversation Baker both spurred and helped led and Healey’s rhetoric last Thursday that “[i]f we want Massachusetts to be a home for all, we need to build more of them, and we need to make sure those homes are within reach” – a line she had trouble finishing as legislators’ deafening applause echoed around the House of Representatives’ chamber. 

All Massachusetts owes Baker a debt of gratitude on his housing efforts. He may not have pushed for solutions as radical as some sought, and he may have been a die-hard opponent of others’ policy prescriptions for Massachusetts’ housing debacle, but by dedicating his second term to the issue, he helped make it a must-solve problem that everyone from Town Hall to the State House now wants to tackle. 

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Healey Steps Easily into Baker’s Shoes

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min