The Honorable Kevin G. Honan, House Chair
The Honorable Brendan P. Crighton, Senate Chair
Joint Committee on Housing
State House, Boston

Dear Chair Honan, Chair Crighton, and Distinguished Members of the Committee,

On behalf of cities and towns across the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association is writing to express our continued enthusiastic support for the framework established by H. 3507, An Act to Promote Housing Choices. 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 will 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.

This 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 body, rather than the two-thirds supermajority currently required by state law.  This measure would provide municipalities with the ability to increase higher-density housing production, while ensuring that the new developments match community and neighborhood needs.

We believe that any reform to state zoning laws must contain strong protection of local decision-making authority, and we strongly oppose bills that contain “by-right” language that would override zoning by-laws that have been established by citizens and their elected and appointed leaders. This bill, 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 approved this bill 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.

Our 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. But time is of the essence. We ask that the bill be enacted this year before we 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.

We have 351 cities and towns, and 259 have what’s called an Open Town Meeting, which means that all registered voters serve as the local legislative body that sets zoning. Another 35 communities have Representative Town Meeting, where about 200 local volunteers are elected to serve as the legislative authority. That’s a total of 294 communities out of 351, or 84% of our communities. Of the remaining 16%, all but 2 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.

This bill offers a meaningful partnership with cities and towns, and 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 is bold in its impact. The MMA strongly supports this bill as written, and asks that the Legislature 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.

Rather than mandates, local officials and community leaders need resources, tools, incentives and flexibility. Right now, cities and towns across Massachusetts are pioneering innovative and bold approaches to housing issues. The Housing Choices Act is a necessary tool to help cities and towns to produce more housing. We need this tool now so that we can build on that success and continue to work on the housing challenges that Massachusetts is facing.

Thank you very much for your quick action in scheduling this hearing, and for your attention to this measure. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Senior Legislative Analyst Brittney Franklin at (617) 426-7272 at any time.

Sincerely,

Geoffrey C. Beckwith
Executive Director & CEO