A Chaotic Final Day of the Session, with Some Notable Victories

The formal legislative session in Massachusetts typically ends on July 31 every even-numbered year. Beyond that, the Legislature remains in "informal" session, with only a handful of legislators actually present and only non-controversial policies advanced (if anything at all).

Back in July, with no budget in the near future, the Legislature voted to extend the formal session, enabling it to go as long as it possibly could -- until 11:59 pm on Tuesday, January 5.

That didn't stop them, however, from pushing off so much of their work until the very last minutes (and extending the final day of the session into 4:30 the next morning). Like college students pushing off all assignments until the hours before they're due.

Despite the embarrassment of a process --- with legislators lacking time to read what they were about to vote on -- there were still some important victories.

Campus Sexual Assault Survey: Since its founding in 2016, the Every Voice Coalition, a coalition of college students and young alumni, has filed student-written legislation to address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses. The bill would creates a task force on sexual misconduct climate surveys to design and implement a biennial statewide survey, require institutions of higher education to adopt and make available to students a policy on sexual misconduct, and establish the position of confidential resource advisor on all Massachusetts campuses, among other steps. The bill has gotten caught up in House-Senate friction in past sessions: last session, the House passed it, but the Senate didn't; the prior session, it was the reverse. Finally, both House and Senate passed it -- and sent it to the Governor's desk.

Student Loan Borrowers Bill of Rights: The disinvestment in public higher education in Massachusetts has led to growing student loan debt, as colleges and universities push more and more cost onto students. This bill, included in the economic development package, would offer new protections to student borrowers by requiring the Division of Banks to license all student loan servicers and hold them responsible for fraudulent and predatory practices; establish a Student Loan Ombudsman office that will receive, review and assist in resolving complaints; and mandate annual reporting on conduct, complaints, resolutions, and trends in student loan servicing practices. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Washington, and DC have all passed similar legislation.

Changing the State Flag & Seal: Massachusetts still has an incredibly racist flag and seal, and indigenous activists have been fighting to change it for decades. The Legislature finally approved the creation of a commission to make recommendations for a new flag and seal.

Transportation Bond Bill: The Legislature passed a compromise version of the bond bills each chamber passed earlier in 2020, authorizing $16.5 billion in potential investment in highway and bridge maintenance, train modernization, and projects like a Red Line-Blue Line Connector or the extension of commuter rail service to the South Coast. Although the Senate never took up the transportation revenue package that the House passed, the final bond bill did include an increase in fees on ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. It also required the MBTA to implement a low-income far program and decriminalized fare avoidance, valuable steps toward equity that nonetheless fall short of the true goal of fare-free public transit.

Perhaps the most-watched parts of the aforementioned economic development bill were the housing policy components.

Zoning Reform: The economic development package included language from Charlie Baker's "Housing Choices" bill to make it easier for municipalities to approve zoning changes by lowering the approval threshold for city councils or town meetings from two-thirds to a simple majority. Such zoning changes include allowing multi-family housing as of right or by special location near transit or town centers, allowing for the construction of accessory dwelling units (e.g., a "mother-in-law suite"), allowing for smart growth districts and mixed-use development in town center, and allowing for greater density or reduced parking spaces (among a few other changes).

Making it easier to approve zoning changes doesn't, however, guarantee that any municipality will. The Legislature went further than the Governor by requiring municipalities served by the MBTA to designate at least 1 district of at least 15 units per acre within 0.5 miles of a public transit stop or station in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right. Notably, the language ensures that such housing will be made available to families with children by prohibiting the use of age restrictions. 

A major concern of tenant advocates has been the fact that the approval of new development could lead to displacement of low-income residents, especially when you get beyond the inner-ring suburbs with strong NIMBY streaks and into the diverse smaller cities on the MBTA that have been starting to experience gentrification. Although more is needed to bolster tenant protections, the bill contained some important provisions on that front as well.

Eviction Sealing: Having an eviction record is creating a devastating barrier for tenants looking for housing. Records are created as soon as a case is filed and are publicly available forever––regardless of the outcome. These records impact people’s ability to obtain housing, credit, and employment, harming many and disproportionately impacting women and people of color. The economic development bill contained language to address this, a narrowed version of the HOMES bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Moran and Sen. Joe Boncore on behalf of Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards. Under the new language, landlords are prohibited from naming minors in an eviction complaint, a tenant with a court record of a no-fault eviction may petition the court to seal the court record at any time after, a tenant with non-payment evictions can petition the court to seal after paying off a judgment, and consumer reporting agencies are barred from disclosing the existence of or information regarding such records. No-fault evictions are those where the tenant had paid rent and followed the terms of the lease, but the landlord kicked them out anyway, e.g., to sell the building or move in a family member.

Tenant Opportunity to Purchase (TOPA): Say a landlord wants to sell a building for more money and plans to evict the tenants. What recourse do they have? The Tenant Opportunity to Purchase (TOPA) language adds one. Under a TOPA ordinance, tenants of small, medium, and large multifamily properties would have a right of first refusal when the owner plans to put a building on the market, provided that they can make a bona fide offer to match the asking price in a reasonable period of time. This has been a proven way of preserving low-income and affordable housing stock, especially protecting it from the growing speculation in the housing market. The TOPA provision in the bill was not a blanket statewide policy but enabling legislation, i.e., allowing cities and towns to adopt TOPA ordinances without state approval. Somerville, for example, has already adopted one and has had to endure the slog of seeking State House approval.

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published this page in Issues 2021-01-07 08:33:58 -0500
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