BOSTON — It could get a lot easier for developers to build housing if the governor’s housing initiative is approved.
Filed in February after it failed last year, the measure has broad bipartisan support from the North Shore’s legislative delegation.
Proponents say the lack of home building is fueling rising rents and home prices and the bill is one answer to the state’s housing crisis.
Under the proposal, zoning changes can be made by town meeting and city councils by a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds supermajority required today.
As a result, cities and towns can reduce house lot sizes, allow mixed-use zoning in downtowns, create dense cluster zoning for houses, and allow in-law apartments, all by majority vote.
If passed on Beacon Hill, the measure will not mandate municipalities to make these zoning changes. But Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative rewards communities that do with grants and technical assistance.
Last year, the Baker administration awarded $5 million in capital funding to 31 communities that voluntarily partnered with MassHousing, the state’s development bank, to produce more than 4,000 new housing units under less strict zoning rules. So far, Beverly is the only North Shore community to receive the cash. The city of 39,500 netted $150,000 for design work to transform the MBTA Commuter Rail station into a transportation hub.
State Rep. Daniel Cahill (D-Lynn), who served as a city councilor before he was elected to the House of Representatives, said he favors it.
“Why should zoning be treated differently than anything else a city council does?” he said. “It’s an up or down vote, win or lose. By having it be a majority vote does not limit opponents from being heard. It’s important because many towns don’t want any zoning changes because they don’t want development. There’s a housing crisis and unless we seriously address it, Massachusetts will be at a disadvantage.”
State Rep. Lori Ehrlich (D-Marblehead) said two-thirds is proving to be a very difficult threshold to meet.
“A simple majority in most aspects of a democracy tends to reflect consensus,” she said.
Sen. Brendon Crighton (D-Lynn), chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing Committee and a former Lynn city councilor, said a simple majority makes sense.
“We must produce more housing and this is a step in the right direction,” he said. “It’s not a silver bullet, but we need to produce more than 400,000 new housing units by 2040 to meet the demand and this helps us get there. But it’s just one of the tools in the tool box.”
Crighton, who served as a city councilor in Lynn, said he doesn’t see the proposal as giving up local control.
“This empowers municipalities to enact responsible zoning laws that are more in line with modern times,” he said. “The zoning rules have not changed in many years and we are producing half the housing we built at the peak in the 1970s.”
For Lynnfield, it would have made the difference to build Fairways Edge at Sagamore, an over-55 condominium community to be built around the golf course. While the 154-unit project won a majority of Town Meeting votes, it failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
Zoning changes to promote housing growth that would qualify for the simple majority include:
- Building mixed-use, multi-family, and single-family homes, and adopting so-called smart growth zoning in town centers and near MBTA stations.
- Allowing construction of accessory dwelling units, or “in-law” apartments.
- Granting increased density through a special permit process.
- Reduce parking requirements and minimum lot sizes.
State Rep. Bradley Jones (R-North Reading), the House Minority Leader who represents Lynnfield, said he is supportive of the governor’s plan.
“The Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), the voice of cities and towns, supports it,” he said. “I take my cue from them. It’s a carefully balanced measure, and all the stakeholders are OK with it. People are very averse to change, but a majority does a very good job if they want to reject something.”
State Rep. Thomas Walsh (D-Peabody) said Massachusetts is one of the few states that requires a two-thirds vote to amend zoning ordinances. But he said it will be a hard sell to city councils and boards of aldermen.
“I was a city councilor and I understand they want control,” he said. “But there are instances where good projects are stymied. We are not going to solve the housing crisis unless we move forward. I know that provision is not popular, but I’m leaning towards supporting it.”
Baker said the legislation is critical to unlock the potential of cities and towns committed to responsible growth, development and enacting best practices in sustainable housing production. “We are committed to working with stakeholders and the Legislature to make it a reality,” said Baker in a statement.
Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the MAA, did not return a call seeking comment.
But in a statement issued from the governor’s office, Beckwith said making housing more affordable can only be achieved when the state and municipalities collaborate as partners.
“This bill embraces that partnership, and the MMA looks forward to working with all coalition partners to bring meaningful zoning reform that respects local decision-making across the finish line,” he said.