Housing deserves prime spot in end-of-session 'traffic,' Baker says
Baker met with over two dozen business executives and employer groups for about half an hour at the State House, after which they joined him for a press conference to show their support for his legislation aimed at creating 135,000 new housing units by 2025.
The governor identified passage of his "housing choices" bill as one of his top two legislative priorities for the remainder of the year, alongside opioid abuse prevention legislation, describing the state as one "in virtual crisis mode" when it comes to its housing stock.
"We have tons of great organizations doing great things. We have wonderful people. We have a whole generation of young people excited to be here, but if we want to keep those jobs and that opportunity and that talent here, we're going to have to get a lot more aggressive about creating opportunity for people to find housing they can afford to live in," Baker said.
Jim Gallagher, executive vice president at John Hancock, said the availability of affordable housing options is one of the top concerns of college students that the financial services company recruits out of local universities.
"It's time to get this done," Gallagher said.
Since the 1970s, 80s and early 90s when more than 30,000 new houses were started each year, Baker said housing production has declined to half that amount, or less. The lack of supply, he said, has pushed prices so high that low-to-moderate income families have been priced out of many housing markets, forcing them to leave the state or commute farther to work. The median sale price of a single family home in January was 350,000, and the median price of a condo was $345,000, both record highs for the month, according to the Warren Group.
"Many of the folks in the business community, in the employer community, have made clear to us that this is not a can we can continue to kick down the road year after year after year and just expect it to take care of itself," Baker said.
Baker's bill would allow cities and towns to adopt certain zoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than the existing requirement of a two-thirds supermajority, with the goal of spurring the production of 135,000 new units by 2025.
The change, which has been backed unanimously by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, would make it easier for cities and towns to advance mixed-use, multi-family and transit-oriented projects, relax density and lot size requirements, or transfer development rights.
Robert Reynolds, the CEO of Putnam Investments, described the housing crisis as a lesson in "Econ 101."
"The less you supply, the greater demand, the higher prices. That makes us less competitive as a state," Reynolds said.
Boston Medical Center CEO Kate Walsh said housing has not only become an issue for her hospital to retain talent, but also one for her patients, many of which are homeless or in unstable living arrangements.
Senate President Harriette Chandler, in a speech to the Worcester Chamber of Commerce on Monday, said Senate Democrats share the governor's sense of urgency with respect to housing, and believe the governor's bill is "strong," but also that more could be done.
Last session, the Senate passed a comprehensive overhaul of zoning laws that stalled out in the House.
Chandler said some experts believe even more housing than pitched by the governor will be needed to meet demand.
"One of our top priorities is a more comprehensive housing effort that would lower housing costs overall, allow municipalities to require affordable housing as part of every housing development, and provide stronger tools to prevent housing discrimination," Chandler said.
Chandler, in her speech, also said that transportation and infrastructure go hand-in-hand with housing production as factors that contribute to the economic vibrancy of regions outside of Boston. To that end, she called on the MBTA to develop a plan for electrified, rapid regional rail service by 2020.
"I'm happy to talk about finding ways to marry what we're doing with transportation and what we're doing with housing, but the big thing people need to remember here is if we don't change some of the fundamentals around how the decision get made in local communities associated with housing generally and get away from rule by the minority and give rule by the majority an opportunity to move forward we're simply not going to create enough new starts," Baker said.
The House and Senate have just over four months to complete work on many bills that have been flagged as legislative priorities, and are about to enter a two-month stretch when debate over annual spending plans tends to dominate the action on Beacon Hill.
Chandler has said that the Senate is ready to move on housing legislation, but wants to wait to see what the House drafts first.
For now, Baker said he has grown used to the pace of activity in the Legislature and did not express any frustration with legislators even as many of the proposals he has made over the last 14 months continue to pile up without votes.
"I fully expect that we're going to have push and advocate with our colleagues and others to try to get all of this stuff done over the course of the next four months, but the one thing I think we can all agree on is that there's a tremendous amount of traffic and activity that takes place in the Legislature in the last four months of the session, and we're anticipating a big piece of that agenda will get done over the next 120 days," Baker said.
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