Senate panel recommends changing zoning laws

The Massachsetts Senate has released a report entitled Facing Massachusetts’ Housing Crisis exploring various issues and solutions related to high housing costs in the state. In addition to addressing development issues, the report also examined the policies on homelessness and stabilization. The executive summary, among other proposals, suggests the creation of community land trusts, rehabilitating and repurposing older properties and allowing multifamily and accessory dwelling unit production by right.

“Massachusetts needs a revolution in housing production to keep up with the demand for new housing statewide,” the report reads. “Prices in the Boston area, especially the most convenient suburban and urban locations, are growing exponentially while the Gateway Cities are struggling to attract private capital to expand housing.”

The report, based on the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, maintains that Massachusetts needs 17,000 new homes a year to maintain its econiomic base, but production fell 52 percent overall and 80 percent for multifamily homes. This is largely because municipalties permit very little new multifamily construction.

With significant multifamily housing in great demand, 207 of our 351 cities and towns have permitted no multifamily housing with more than 5 units in over a decade and over a third of our communities have permitted only single family housing. The lack of multifamily zoning is the most signiϐicant barrier to building affordable and market rate housing, and is so basic a requirement that no other long-term production goals can be achieved successfully without it. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, of the 435,000 homes projected to be needed by 2040 . . . most of the demand is for multifamily housing.

Just as signifigantly as more as-of-right multifamily development is the endorsement of as-of-right accessory dwelling units, which is practically unheard of in the United States:

 The new legislation should allow property owners to construct one accessory dwelling unit as of right in existing single-family residential zoning districts on lots above a reasonable minimum size. Communities would be able to impose reasonable dimensional setbacks and reasonable bulk and height limits, but would not be able to use special permit mechanisms to frustrate or discourage the development and rental of these units.

Much of the impact of both proposals is lost with the report’s repeated use of the word “reasonable”, in contrast with more specific recommendations elsewhere. It would be disastrous if such language made it’s way into the bill, allowing politicians to claim they support measures to increase housing supply while not actually preventing municipalities from blocking development the way places like Newton currently get out of allowing affordable housing.

The panel report attracted a lot of attention in the press for its least thought-out idea: “Millenial villages”. This is a pet idea of Barry Bluestone, but no one has taken him up on it yet. The idea is that by building affordable apartments targeted at graduate students and young professionals, it will free up Boston’s older, cheaper multifamily housing stock for working people and families. Presumably they’d be dense apartment buildings in younger neighborhoods like Allston and Mission Hill.

The report also recommended that forgiven mortgage debt no longer be taxed as a windfall profit; that more community land trusts be created; retired homeowners could get property tax relief on the condition of giving the town a right-of-first-refusal when they want to sell it; expanding programs that help homeless families get apartments and starting new programs to incentivize landlords to house them. Another program supported by the report is one that would hire public housing residents to help with cleaning and maintaince of vacant units as a way of getting them skills in higher paying jobs.

The senate panel endorsed a plan to allow local public housing authority to lease unused land to developers as long as it generates revenue and provides mixed income housing.This is a good idea. It was floated in New York City last year and under Bloomberg.

Funding a program to encourage smart growth development and more support services for families rounded out the recommendations.

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