Massachusetts House Votes Down Proposals to Help Renters, Promot Affordable Housing

When Governor Charlie Baker sent an economic development bill to the MA Legislature, he included his "Housing Choices" legislation, which had been stalled as a standalone bill. The "Housing Choices" bill addresses one aspect of Massachusetts's affordable housing crisis: the fact that new construction is relatively rare in the suburbs due to the prevalence of single-family zoning. If you can only build one housing unit per lot, it makes it more difficult to respond to a growing population or growing demand. Currently, zoning changes (such as those that would approve multifamily housing construction) require a 2/3 approval from local government. Baker's bill, which the MA House retained in their economic development package, would lower that to a simple majority.

The need for more supply, though, is just one part of the problem. There is no guarantee that the new supply would be affordable, nor that the new supply would not push up rents for current tenants, thus running the risk of displacement. There isn't even a guarantee that any new housing will be built at all (it's a removal of a barrier rather than promise of new construction).

That being said, as an MIT researcher recently noted in CommonWealth Mag, all this means is that we need to think comprehensively when we approach the affordable housing crisis: we do need zoning reform, but we also need stronger protections for existing tenants. Tenant protections will not address the need for supply: only new construction can. Zoning reform will not address displacement: you need tenant protections for that. This was also an essential takeaway of the book Golden Gates by Conor Dougherty on the housing crisis in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, the MA House voted down efforts at striking such a balance.

Rep. Mike Connolly (D-Cambridge) filed and roll-called three amendments to strike a better balance.

First was his amendment 34, which would have enabled municipalities to impose transfer fees on real estate transactions to fund affordable housing. Cities like Boston, Somerville, and Nantucket have filed home rule petitions in order to be able to do so because state law prohibits them from doing so on their own. To be clear, this amendment would simply allow municipalities to pass their own laws to address the affordable housing crisis--and to craft whatever exemptions to the transfer fee's application as they see appropriate.

The House voted 130 to 29 against it. 9 state reps endorsed *the very same bill* but voted NO here: Barrett, Driscoll, Garballey, Gonzalez, Keefe, Khan, Livingstone, Miranda, and Santiago.

The only argument put forth against it on the floor was from Rep. Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), who said that there is already enough money for affordable housing (false) and that a transfer fee would hurt low and middle-income homeowners (also false, given the allowance of exemptions).

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He also filed and roll-called an amendment that reflected the text of his Tenant Protection Act, which would remove the prohibition on rent control and enable municipalities to pass other tenant protections, such as just cause eviction ordinances or limitations on condo conversions. Again, simply allowing municipalities to pass their own laws in response to the affordable housing crisis.

The House voted 136 to 29 against it. Five legislators who co-sponsored the very same bill voted against the amendment: Devers, Hawkins, LeBoeuf, Miranda, and Santiago.

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Finally, Connolly filed and roll-called an amendment to lower the threshold for approval of inclusionary zoning ordinances to a simple majority. Inclusionary zoning, i.e., the requirement that a certain percentage of new construction meet an affordability threshold, was not included in the list of zoning changes that would no longer need a supermajority.

Given that many suburbs don't want to build housing at all, there is likely not a rush to adopt inclusionary zoning, but if a suburb were so forward-thinking, it should be able to.

The House voted 139 to 19 against allowing that. Again, five representatives who co-sponsored *the same bill* voted against it: Gentile, Hawkins, Hendricks, LeBoeuf, and Livingstone.

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