House Speaker Ron Mariano last week signaled his skepticism of real estate transfer taxes as a means of raising money for affordable housing. The taxes were included in Gov. Maura Healey’s housing bonding and policy bill. iStock photo illustration

Once again, it looks like cities and towns lobbying at the State House for a so-called mansion tax are likely to come away disappointed.

House Speaker Ron Mariano has thrown cold water on the push by local officials for a green light to put a tax or transfer fee on both residential and commercial property sales over $1 million.

Given that he’s not the most loquacious guy around, Mariano’s statement to reporters last week, per the Boston Globe, was a big deal.

The Quincy Democrat said he doesn’t “know if it’s a solution” to the housing crisis – especially outside of high-end towns on the Cape and Islands – and hinting that the luxury real estate tax might not even make it out of the House.

For the city and town leaders and housing advocates who have spent years pushing for a transfer fee or tax to raise money to pay for desperately needed affordable housing, it was like the movie “Groundhog Day,” but without the laughs.

Yet while failure can be tough, it also has the potential to be a master teacher.

And just maybe it’s time for Local Option for Housing Affordability, the mix of local officials, housing and planning agencies and community organizations lobbying for the real estate tax, to consider revamping their ask.

Housing Still Too Hard to Build

If you can’t beat them, you don’t necessarily have to join them, but negotiating might be a sensible next step.

Yes, the real estate industry has a lot of clout on Beacon Hill, but maybe it’s worth asking whether it’s more than just pure political power of the opposition that is behind the perennial failure to move from proposal to actual law.

Few would argue that building affordable housing isn’t crucial given how crazy prices and rents have become. And affordable apartments don’t come cheap – like all housing right now, it’s expensive to build.

Local communities, especially smaller ones, have limited tools when it comes to raising money for these endeavors.

But the real estate industry, especially developers and those that work with them, have some very legitimate gripes when it comes to the many and sundry barriers cities, towns and suburbs have thrown up to obstruct and severely limit the amount of new housing that gets built.

You don’t have to look very hard to see that NIMBY attitude at work. Consider all the creative ways local officials have cooked up to ensure their communities comply with the new MBTA Communities law on paper without actually laying the groundwork for new housing.

A favorite tactic is to place the new multifamily district atop areas already built out with apartments or condominiums.

And we are just talking about the towns that have submitted plans and agreed to comply with the law, with a growing number of others – like Norwell, Marblehead and Wakefield, to name three that have captured headlines of late – rejecting it outright.

Scott Van Voorhis

Pledge Concrete Steps

If city and town officials truly want to see a transfer tax clear the State House in their lifetime, they might consider making some concessions.

A big step would be simply just to acknowledge the problem – “Hey, we do make the permitting of new housing a lot harder than it should be” – and promise to make changes that cut down on the expensive and uncertain process of permitting housing in Massachusetts.

That alone would be big news. Local officials and their representatives on Beacon Hill have traditionally fought zoning reform proposals tooth and nail, with the MBTA Communities law no exception.

Then pledge to significantly increase the number of new housing units approved on the local level, say over the next decade, while agreeing to some common, concrete changes necessary for this to happen.

Maybe even then the real estate industry won’t budge. But then again, their pushback won’t carry the same weight as it does now.

Scott Van Voorhis is Banker & Tradesman’s columnist; opinions expressed are his own. He may be reached at

To Get Transfer Taxes Passed, Try Compromising

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min