Housing Bill Still on Radar in Lame-duck Sessions

November 24, 2018

By Katie Lannan

State House News Service

BOSTON -- In the 49 weeks since Gov. Charlie Baker filed a zoning bill he’s said will help boost housing production, he’s made clear he wants to sign it into law.

He singled it out in his State of the State address in January, asking that it “be taken up soon because for too many people housing in the commonwealth is unaffordable.” In July, he made personal visits to House and Senate leaders, asking them to bring it to the floor in the final hours of formal sessions this year. In the fall, he brought it up in gubernatorial debates, and the morning after he won reelection he said he still wanted “to nudge that along.”

Less clear, with six weeks remaining in the two-year legislative term, is whether the bill will make its way to Baker’s desk, or even move beyond the House Ways and Means Committee, where it’s been for months.

While housing production policy seems like a topic that would demand a robust public debate, state officials are still talking about advancing the bill in sessions where debate and recorded votes are not allowed.

“It would be terrific if it could be done in informal session,” said Rep. Kevin Honan, the co-chair of the Housing Committee. “There is some level of interest, yeah, but we’ll see if it can be done. Otherwise, we’ll do it early in the next session.”

The committee Honan chairs with Sen. Joseph Boncore endorsed a version of Baker’s bill in March, sending it to Ways and Means.

The bill lowers the threshold for approving local zoning changes, dropping it from two-thirds support to a simple majority. Zoning bylaws vary from community to community in Massachusetts, which has 351 cities and towns.

Despite Baker’s push -- and the support of a coalition including the Massachusetts Municipal Association and building and real estate groups -- House leaders have opted against brining a bill to the floor for debate.

“I think that there’s so many people on board right now we could conceivably advance the the bill further without debate,” Honan said. “I think it’s generally agreed upon that there is a serious housing crisis in Massachusetts and anything that can be done to help alleviate it would be good.”

While some lawmakers and advocates have voiced interest in taking larger steps on housing production and zoning reform, there has been little public opposition to the bill over the past 11 months, with any concerns apparently disussed in private. MMA executive director Geoff Beckwith said last week “there are no announced opponents” to the bill.

House Minority Leader Brad Jones, a North Reading Republican, said he believes most of the 34 lawmakers in his caucus “are for the most part OK with the bill, at least most of the bill.”

He said the lowering of the zoning change threshold is a “challenge” for some because local officials in their district may not agree with it, despite the Municipal Association signing off on the measure.

“Any member may say, ‘I know MMA’s for it, but my local board is concerned,’ ” he said.

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