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Housing legislation can innovate without trampling local decision-making

Dear Editor,
Dante Ramos was off the mark in his recent column (“Legalize more housing, Speaker DeLeo,” 07/19/18). First, Speaker DeLeo deserves praise for passing major housing legislation throughout his career, most recently the $1.8 billion housing bond bill that became law in May, which will spur affordable housing development across Massachusetts for years to come.

Second, Rep. Kevin Honan and members of the Speaker’s leadership team have advanced a groundbreaking bill originally filed by Gov. Baker that would make it easier for cities and towns to enact key zoning changes to produce tens of thousands of new housing units, ranging from accessory apartments to multi-family developments. The Housing Committee’s bill, H. 4290, is backed by a broad coalition of municipal leaders, realtors, homebuilders, developers, and organizations. The bill would allow communities to implement zoning changes to boost housing development by a simple majority vote instead of the current two-thirds threshold – this would be the most significant zoning legislation in decades. Currently, the bill is before the House Ways & Means Committee, and we are urging the House and Senate to enact the bill without harmful amendments.

H. 4290 is an important measure that would dramatically advance housing development without trampling on the local decision-making authority that is necessary when it comes to zoning. Our communities are not identical. We have rural, suburban and urban settings. Some have high density and aging housing stock, others are rapidly growing with a mix of old and new properties, some have hundreds of miles of roads, others have just a few. Some have limited water supplies, others have unlimited resources. All of these issues (and more) must be considered and balanced, which is why zoning is best decided locally.

It is impossible to craft a one-size-fits-all statewide zoning provision that is appropriate for all, or even most, communities and neighborhoods. Yet that is exactly what Mr. Ramos is calling for, when he wants the state to mandate that all single-family homeowners have the ability to turn their properties into two-family dwellings. Further, he thinks it is a good idea for legislators to strip Town Meetings and city councils of the ability to decide the zoning rules to fit the needs of their communities. 259 towns have Open Town Meeting, which means that zoning is voted on by all registered voters. With ten days left in the session, we do not think lawmakers should take these voting rights away from their citizens.

At least 222 communities already have zoning bylaws that allow accessory apartments, and these were enacted with the current two-thirds vote requirement. Recent examples are in Provincetown, Hingham and Williamsburg. Communities are working hard to address their housing needs, and H. 4290 would generate further momentum. Ironically, the state mandate Mr. Ramos is talking about would render these bylaws illegal, and create widespread uncertainty.

The best approach is to embrace the victory that is within our grasp, and pass H. 4290 as written. This will give us more housing while ensuring that local citizens can shape the housing landscape in a way that works for all neighborhoods.

Sincerely,

Geoffrey C. Beckwith
MMA Executive Director & CEO