Gov. Maura Healey’s new housing bill is full of promise. But even if she’s able to get it through the legislature largely intact, Massachusetts can’t afford for this bill to be the only major housing legislation of her first term.
As Scott Van Voorhis notes in his column this week, Healey’s team took a pass on some of the more aggressive and expansive housing policy ideas that have gained currency with advocates and some state legislators.
For example, perhaps the highest-profile idea gaining currency would be to extend the provisions of the MBTA Communities law to the entire state, requiring every town and city to allow moderately dense multifamily housing to be built near transit or in community centers without a special permit or zoning variance – in essence, returning Massachusetts to a traditional development pattern that held sway for over 150 years until car-mad planners of the post-war era stamped it out.
Other that have gained currency in states grappling with similar housing production crises: reforming or eliminating parking requirements near transit stops, reforming environmental permitting processes and letting struggling religious congregations add housing on their property by right.
The limited scope of Healey’s bill makes political sense. Indeed, one of its relatively modest policy changes – allowing accessory dwelling units on single-family lots statewide – already appears to be raising hackles among some municipal leaders who dislike that a small slice of their control over land use is being taken away.
Better to get more modest wins through while building consensus for bolder action and save political capital for bigger fights down the line, so the administration says.
But one of the Healey bill’s big selling points – its claimed ability to create up to 40,000 new homes over five years – is also a big, blaring warning that Beacon Hill can’t fall into its usual habit of waiting half a decade or more between major policy bills on any one topic.
The state needs to be producing something like 20,000 new homes per year according to the Baker administration. And it’s not as though one can simply add the units expected to be created under the MBTA Communities law to those Healey says her Affordable Homes Act will enable – there’s likely to be significant overlap as many of Healey’s 40,000 units will be funded by the bill’s bonding components, not unlocked through policy reforms.
Fortunately, the Affordable Homes Act doesn’t close the door to more aggressive action. It legally requires the state’s new Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities to create and regularly update a statewide housing plan and creates two councils intended to build consensus around further housing reforms both statewide and specifically for the state’s vacation destinations.
In trying to keep all the players at the negotiating table even after this bill is done and dusted, Healey may be making her biggest contribution of all to solving our housing problems.
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