Administration continues work on Housing Choice Initiative

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The Baker-Polito administration continues to advance its Housing Choice Initiative program, as the Legislature initiates hearings on the legislative component.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito unveiled the initiative, a combination of legislation and a new grant program, on Dec. 11. The governor was scheduled to testify in support of the legislation during a hearing on Jan. 30 before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing.
An MMA panel of Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, Norwell Selectman Ellen Allen and Newton Councillor Lisle Baker was also planning to testify, stressing that cities and towns are leading on housing issues and that local officials support the incentives-based approach of the governor’s bill. The panel also voiced support for the additional resources provided for in the Housing Choice grant program.
The Housing Choice Initiative is designed to build upon progress being made by cities and towns in the housing field, while providing more tools and flexibility for municipal leaders. The administration’s goal is the creation of 135,000 new housing units by 2025.
A key point of the legislation is that it would reduce the two-thirds voting threshold to a simple majority for cities and towns looking to enact policies laid out in a set of best practices established by the administration.
This change would apply only to municipalities looking to enact specific zoning changes, which include:
• Zoning for multifamily and cluster development
• Establishing by-right zones for accessory apartments (contingent on meeting local health and safety standards)
• Allowing for transfer of development rights
• Reducing parking and dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes
As part of the initiative, the Department of Housing and Community Development will be changing the way it interacts with municipalities, creating a single online portal for coordinated access to programs, grants and technical assistance across multiple agencies.
The administration plans to provide for more than $10 million in incentives annually, through a combination of new grant funding and technical assistance.
The new grants will be in addition to the $1.2 billion housing bond bill passed by the Legislature on Jan. 25.
Communities that follow the best practices laid out by the administration and obtain the Housing Choice designation will receive priority consideration for the grants. The program will be similar to the Green Communities program, which is voluntary and meant to encourage cities and towns to invest in clean energy and climate change mitigation.
Cities and towns, which have permitted new housing units at a two-decade-high rate over the past two years, are on track to meet the administration’s housing creation goal.
At the unveiling of the new Housing Choice Initiative, MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith expressed the association’s support for the general framework of the proposal.
“The governor is 100 percent correct – this is an issue that requires a partnership between the state and our cities and towns,” Beckwith said. “Community leaders need resources, tools, incentives and flexibility, and they also need to preserve their decision-making authority, because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
“We applaud the governor’s Housing Choice Initiative, because he is standing with cities and towns, and offering resources and tools that are necessary to make real progress together.”
Several members of the administration attended the MMA Annual Meeting in January, including Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash, Housing Choice Program Director Chris Kluchman, and Chrystal Kornegay, the new head of MassHousing and, until recently, the undersecretary of Housing and Community Development.
The MMA’s policy committees are beginning a full review of the governor’s legislation and will offer input to the MMA Board of Directors on this issue throughout the year.