Among the biggest attention-grabbers in the “YIMBY Bill” is a provision that would legalize the building of accessory dwelling units on many single-family lots statewide. iStock illustration

Housing advocates, industry groups and several leading progressives are piling in behind a smorgasbord of housing production reforms packed into a new bill on Beacon Hill. But could a tepid reception from a key player and fissures among the interest groups backing the legislation turn the Yes In My Back Yard bill into the Maybe In My Back Yard bill? 

The “YIMBY Bill,” officially known at the State House as H.1359 and S.858, has a long way to go within the legislative process, with supporters not expecting final action until 2024, the last year of the legislature’s current two-year session. 

But the legislation, which sets of an ambitious goal of building 427,000 new housing units in Massachusetts by 2040, got off to a strong start late last month at a hearing of the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, which heard from a number of groups expressing support or guarded support for the bill. The groups include the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, the Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA), and the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts. 

Sponsored in the House by Rep. Andy Vargas (D-Haverhill) and in the Senate by Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn), the legislation itself contains a number of provisions designed to boost housing construction in Massachusetts, including allowing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be built on many single-family lots in every community; repurposing vacant commercial properties, like strip malls and offices, into affordable homes; allowing multifamily housing units near regional transportation authorities’ nodes; prioritizing state-owned land for affordable homes; and making it easier to pass local inclusionary zoning bylaws. 

Major Player Silent – So Far 

Some groups support all of the provisions, while others have qualms about a few of the proposals, particularly the call to make it easier to pass inclusionary zoning bylaws. 

But there’s one group that hasn’t weighed in yet in detail on the YIMBY bill: the influential Massachusetts Municipal Association, which is very protective of local governments’ powers, particularly when it comes to permitting new housing in communities.  

In recent decades, many local governments have resisted new housing proposals, especially multifamily housing, saying they’ll change the character of their towns or put more burdens on municipal services and schools. 

Asked for MMA’s views on H.1359 and S.858, the group’s outgoing executive director Geoff Beckwith would only say in a statement: “There are lots of aspects to the two bills [in the House and Senate], some we like, some are problematic. Our policy committee is still reviewing, so it’s premature to provide an overall statement until we receive their feedback.” 

With or without MMA backing, supporters of the bill say they plan to press forward over the coming year as House and Senate leaders sort out how they want to respond to the state’s housing crisis in legislative form, including a housing bonding bill expected to be filed by Gov. Maura Healey in the not-too-distant future. 

“It’s our priority bill for the session,” said Jesse Kanson-Benanav, executive director of Abundant Housing MA, the prominent nonprofit, pro-housing group that helped draft the YIMBY legislation. 

In many respects, Kanson-Benanav said, the YIMBY bill is an extension of the Housing Choice and MBTA Communities laws, passed together in 2021, which implemented a number of key pro-housing measures. These included making it easier for towns to approve housing projects and pushing for multifamily housing on or near MBTA stations. 

“It takes Housing Choice a step further,” said Kanson-Benanav. “It’s an important step towards progress on the housing front.” 

Vargas, the lead sponsor of the YIMBY bill in the House, conceded that some aspects of the bill may need more research and possible changes. But he said he’s optimistic overall that the “core and fundamental” parts of the legislation will eventually pass.  

“We’re really excited about its prospects,” he said.  

Production Goal Set, ADUs Legalized 

The bill sets an ambitious goal of building 427,000 new housing units in Massachusetts by 2040. 

That may seem like an eye-popping number, but Kanson-Benanav noted that about 900,000 housing units were built in Massachusetts between 1960 and 1990 – and 450,000 were constructed between 1990 and 2020.  

“We haven’t kept up with population growth in recent decades,” said Kanson-Benanav. “We need to do better. We need to set goals.” 

Two other big production measures in the bill: expanding as-of-right multifamily and accessory dwelling unit zoning 

The state’s 2021 package of landmark zoning reforms required towns to allow moderate-density multifamily housing near MBTA stations by-right, as a way to boost new housing in general and transit-oriented housing in particular by short-circuiting the typically onerous and contentious process of getting one-off zoning approval for each project.  

The YIMBY bill calls for similar multifamily-housing requirements throughout the state, on or near regional transit agency properties and transit nodes, such as certain downtown bus stops and stations. 

Maine and Vermont recently approved laws allowing homeowners to build “accessory dwelling units,” also known as “in-law units,” as additions to existing homes. The two New England states were following the lead of California, which recently passed its own ADU law and which has led to construction of thousands of new housing units, according to backers of the YIMBY bill. 

Kanson-Benanav said the Massachusetts legislation, as currently worded, would make clear that homeowners could build ADUs “as a right,” as long as they abide by minimum standards for municipalities to follow. 

“ADUs are not a silver bullet to solving [the housing shortage], but they’re cheap and easy to build in large numbers,” said Sam Larson, vice president of government affairs at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM). 

Inclusionary Zoning Path Eased 

Similar to a provision in the 2021 Housing Choice law that lowers the voting threshold for approving housing projects in towns and cities, a provision within the YIMBY bill would lower the local threshold for expanding inclusionary zoning bylaws, that mandate a share of units in a development be affordable housing, from a two-thirds town vote to a simple majority vote. 

But some pro-housing supporters are now so leery of local governments’ opposition to new housing, they fear towns and cities could add so many affordability standards to inclusionary zoning bylaws that it could actually discourage developers from building new housing projects. 

“Towns have been pretty clever in how they try to limit multifamily housing in their communities,” said AIM’s Larson, who described the inclusionary-zoning provision as a “concern” to AIM. 

Still the provision seems to have helped secure support from vocal progressives like state Reps. Sam Montaño (D-Boston) Michael Connolly (D-Cambridge), both co-sponsors along with Acton Democratic Sen. Jamie Eldridge. Including Crighton and Vargas, the bills muster 31 cosponsors in the House and 12 in the Senate – 20 percent of the former and 30 percent of the latter 

Burt Durand, communications director at the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters, said his 30,000-member union is in favor of making it easier to building new housing in Massachusetts, both as a way to increase work for its members and to help ease the affordable housing shortage that’s hurting its members. 

“For our members, they need affordable housing near where they work,” he said. “Many can’t afford housing in these areas.” 

Durand said his union is now reviewing the YIMBY bill. 

But any housing final bill should include provisions that promote better workplace safety conditions for workers and crack down on wage theft within the residential housing industry, he said. Those concerns are not addressed in the bill, he said. 

High-Profile Housing Bill Draws Support, Cautious Responses

by Jay Fitzgerald time to read: 5 min