From the Beacon, November 2018

Although formal sessions ended in July, House and Senate members have been busy advancing consensus measures to address important issues for Massachusetts. A prime example is last month’s legislation to close the books on the state’s fiscal 2018 budget, with lawmakers providing an additional $40 million in local road funds for cities and towns through the Chapter 90 formula, $10 million more for municipal environmental infrastructure projects, and a $10 million boost in state matching funds for the Community Preservation Act. Other items now in the works include actions to ensure naloxone availability and advance civics education.

A number of years ago, lawmakers passed an important rules reform to avoid “lame duck” sessions of the Legislature. Under this process, the Legislature holds only informal sessions from August through December in election years. During informal sessions, bills can only advance if there is unanimous consent. This allows the state to conduct ongoing and urgent business, while screening out controversial or divisive measures.

With two months remaining in the 2017-2018 legislative session, the House and Senate will continue to process many bills. While most of them will be smaller, targeted initiatives to address technical and timely matters, it is possible to address key challenges and opportunities, especially if there is broad consensus and support.

We strongly urge the Legislature to take this opportunity to enact the Housing Choices bill. Now is the time to take bold action on housing production legislation, instead of starting all over in the 2019-2020 session and waiting months or years to get to this point again.

The Housing Choices bill would make it easier for communities to enact local zoning changes to encourage housing development. The proposal would change the vote for many housing-related zoning updates and special permits to a simple majority from the current two-thirds supermajority. This would preserve decision-making authority for town meetings and city and town councils, and make it easier to respond to community-based housing needs in a way that is appropriate for the city or town.

There is broad support for the bill, and we thought it would be enacted by the end of formal sessions in June and July. However, a few interest groups stopped the bill in the last days of formal sessions in July by demanding that the Legislature override local zoning and impose state-mandated zoning changes for accessory dwelling units and high-density, multi-family developments in neighborhoods across the state. These counterproductive amendments would have delayed the process and slowed down many other bills. In the unlikely event that any of the amendments were added to the bill, this would have splintered support and blocked any chance of final passage. Legislative leaders were forced to hold the bill on the sidelines.

Fortunately, there is a real chance to break this impasse and enact meaningful legislation before the Legislature ends its 2018 session – if lawmakers support this consensus housing measure and reject polarizing amendments that would destabilize this sensible partnership approach.

The coalition supporting the bill is impressive in its depth and breadth. It includes the MMA, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, NAIOP Massachusetts (also known as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association of Massachusetts), and the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. In the past, our organizations have rarely agreed on most development and zoning proposals, yet we are fully aligned on this issue. We all agree that the Housing Choices Act would create a sensible center that would foster increased housing production, while ensuring that cities and towns would still have the tools to ensure that growth would be sustainable and adaptable to community and neighborhood needs.

The Housing Choices bill would return to the original goal of zoning reform, which is to develop a balanced package of updates and refinements to preserve local zoning authority, integrate modern planning approaches with zoning, and ensure a sustainable approach to building out neighborhoods and communities.

We believe that any reform to state zoning laws must contain strong protection of local decision-making authority. There should be no language that would override zoning bylaws. The governor’s bill rightly rejects this top-down, one-size-fits-all approach, recognizing that there is no way that Beacon Hill can impose mandates and zoning prescriptions without creating countless unintended consequences.

Rather than mandates, local officials and community leaders need resources, tools, incentives and flexibility. Cities and towns across Massachusetts are leaders in pioneering innovative and bold approaches to housing issues. Here the state is a vital partner, and the MMA applauds the administration and the Legislature for the good work and partnership of MassWorks, MassDevelopment, and other state agencies and programs that provide municipal governments with many tools they need to realize community-driven visions for zoning and planning.

The last three years have shown record growth in the number of permits issued by municipalities for new housing units, and in the percentage of those newly-permitted units that are multi-family. The Housing Choices bill would continue this momentum. This is why the MMA has reached out to form an unusual coalition to ask the Legislature to pass the Housing Choices bill as is, without any amendments that would divide or break down the consensus that is in place. And that’s why this legislation is ideally positioned for action before the end of the year.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO