From the Beacon, June 2019

Last month, the MMA and local officials from across Massachusetts were at the State House to testify in support of H. 3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices. The legislation, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker and supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, offers a meaningful path forward to build more housing and address the development needs that come with a growing economy.

Since the Housing Choice Initiative was launched in 2017, the Baker-Polito administration has awarded $5 million in capital funding to 31 communities across the Commonwealth and has provided technical assistance for the production of more than 4,000 new housing units.
As an integral part of the Housing Choice Initiative, the Housing Choices Act would accelerate housing production to address the housing challenges currently facing the Commonwealth. We applaud the administration for recognizing that true progress in making housing more affordable can only be achieved when the state and its cities and towns work together as partners.

The bill would make it easier for communities to enact local zoning changes that encourage housing development, by allowing housing-related zoning amendments and special permits to be approved by a simple majority of the local legislative body, rather than the two-thirds supermajority currently required by state law. The measure would provide municipalities with the ability to increase higher-density housing production, while ensuring that the new developments match community and neighborhood needs.

Any reform to state zoning laws must contain strong protection of local decision-making authority, and the MMA strongly opposes bills that contain “by-right” language that would override zoning bylaws that have been established by citizens and their elected and appointed leaders. H. 3507, which was endorsed by the Joint Committee on Housing last session, rightly rejects a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

The MMA Board of Directors unanimously endorsed this legislation last session and joined with a diverse coalition of groups responsible for building housing, including the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and NAIOP – The Commercial Real Estate Development Association to support the bill.

This broad coalition is asking that this bill be enacted without any divisive or weakening amendments that would impose state-set zoning standards, override local decision-making, or create new avenues for costly and unnecessary litigation. Time is of the essence. Unless the bill is enacted early this year, we will miss another entire cycle of town meetings, which is where the vast majority of our communities enact zoning changes.

Ever since Massachusetts was founded, zoning decisions have been determined by the residents of our communities – by the citizens and voters. Local officials may propose changes, but these proposals must receive the approval of the residents. In the vast majority of cases, these decision-makers are volunteers, regular citizens attending a town meeting in a town who receive no pay or stipend, or volunteers elected as councilors who spend hundreds of hours a year making decisions that impact neighborhoods across their communities.

Of our 351 cities and towns, a whopping 259 hold open town meetings, which means that all registered voters serve as the local legislative body that sets zoning. Another 35 communities have a representative town meeting, where about 200 local volunteers are elected to serve as the legislative authority. In total, 294 (84 percent) of our communities have a town meeting form of government, where zoning is established directly by the citizens. Of the remaining 57 localities, all but two have volunteer citizen-councilors who are elected to serve as the legislative and zoning authority. Every town has an all-volunteer planning board.

The role of citizens in this process is essential because Massachusetts knows that one size does not fit all. Sustainable development depends on a localized approach that allows for growth that fits and works. And new laws won’t work if they strip average citizens of their role and voice, which is why the Act to Promote Housing Choices is so effective. By reducing the approval vote to a majority, the bill would bring powerful and meaningful change that would facilitate zoning changes for the production of housing. By preserving the role of the people, the bill would maintain hometown democracy and ensure that citizens retain their voice.

Because of today’s supermajority threshold, the vote of citizens who oppose change is twice as powerful as the vote of citizens who support new approaches or local amendments. This imbalance has created stalemates in many cities and towns throughout Massachusetts, where a clear majority wants to adjust zoning provisions, but the two-thirds hurdle is too high to overcome. The Act to Promote Housing Choices would simply give all citizens the same voice in these local policy decisions.

This bill offers a meaningful partnership with cities and towns. If enacted, it would be the most significant zoning reform measure of the past 50 years. It may seem modest in its means, yet it would be bold in its impact. The MMA strongly supports this bill as written, and is asking the Legislature to enact H. 3507 without any further amendments that could unravel this opportunity to achieve progress – an opportunity that is made possible by this state-local partnership framework.

We don’t need or want the state to take power away from the citizens of Massachusetts, and we don’t need or want the state to override citizen-set zoning frameworks. What we do need and want is a partnership that creates a level pathway for citizens and their local officials to adjust their zoning provisions – as they see fit – in order to generate housing growth that is localized and sustainable.

Cities and towns across Massachusetts are pioneering innovative and bold approaches to housing issues. We need and want the partnership framework that H. 3507 offers, so that our communities can build on that success and address the housing challenges that Massachusetts is facing.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO