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June 6, 2024

Mass. House votes 145-13 to approve $6.5B housing plan

Photo | Grant Welker Worcester homes

Nearly 18 months after legislative leaders kicked off the two-year term by identifying sky-high housing costs as one of their chief areas of focus, the Massachusetts House stamped its approval on a $6.5 billion plan that top Democrats believe will begin to unwind decades of sluggish production.

The House voted 145-13 to approve a housing bond bill Wednesday, sending to the Senate a rewrite of Gov. Maura Healey's proposal that throws heaps more money at the affordability crisis but omits some policies she backed, such as allowing cities and towns to tax certain real estate sales and steer the revenue toward housing.

Representatives made some sizable changes to the five-year bond bill (H 4707) Wednesday, packing in nearly $300 million in additional borrowing, a new local option giving tenants the chance to purchase a building when the landlord wants to sell, and additional guardrails around accessory dwelling units.

Top Democrats have not been able to say how many units of housing they expect to result from the suite of funding and policy reforms in their bill, but the needs are massive. Home sale prices and rents continue to smash records, pushing some Bay Staters to leave for lower-cost alternatives and countless more to scrimp and save to make ends meet.

Administration officials estimate the state needs 200,000 more units in the coming years to keep up with demand.

"The rents are high, the availability of stock is decreasing, there's very few homes on the market. So we recognize there's a problem and the governor spoke well, when she got inaugurated, about the competitiveness issue that she felt we were losing," House Speaker Ron Mariano told reporters before the vote. "And I'm a firm believer that when you talk to folks and they say they don't want to locate here because they can't find homes for their staff or their employees, it's a real problem."

Two Democrats, Milton Rep. William Driscoll and Tewksbury Rep. David Robertson, voted against the bill, as did 11 Republicans.

Housing Committee Co-chair Rep. James Arciero of Westford described the bill as "the largest housing investment in the history of the commonwealth." Its bottom line is more than three and a half times larger than the last housing bond bill, a $1.8 billion plan former Gov. Charlie Baker signed in 2018.

"The residents and citizens of Massachusetts face an unprecedented housing crisis," Arciero said. "Young families struggle to purchase a home and plant roots in the towns that they love and grew up in. Our vulnerable loved ones look to age in place and live healthy, safe lives with dignity. Workers are struggling with rent, and communities from Boston to Hyannis, Lawrence, Worcester and Pittsfield are in need of major revitalization for our aging housing stock."

Senate Democrats will now face some tricky decisions, such as whether to embrace the controversial transfer fee proposal that Healey endorsed, with only eight weeks remaining to draft, debate and approve a rewrite, then agree to a compromise with the House.

No appetite for transfer tax

In their redraft of the bill, House Democrats dropped Healey's proposal to let cities and towns attach new taxes to some high-price real estate sales, then use the revenue for affordable housing investments. They argued the long-discussed idea would be too "scattered" with benefits reserved only for wealthy communities.

The measure's supporters inside the House opted not to put up a fight.

Representatives who filed a handful of amendments authorizing a local-option transfer fee, including narrow versions limited only to the town of Amherst or the Cape and islands, withdrew their proposals without seeking votes.

Only one lawmaker even spoke about the topic Wednesday. Rep. Carmine Gentile of Sudbury introduced an amendment that would have launched a pilot program allowing no more than 22 cities and towns to impose the new fees, likening it to a similar program for limiting fossil fuels in construction that lawmakers greenlit last session.

But after spending about five minutes detailing his proposal, Gentile withdrew it, spiking the topic without forcing his colleagues to take a recorded position.

Often times, amendment sponsors who lack the votes to pass their proposals withdraw their plans rather than see them defeated.

The collective fold means that backers -- including Boston and more than a dozen other communities that have already sought state support for transfer fees -- will now need to hope the policy finds support in the Senate, then survives private cross-branch negotiations.

Representatives moved Wednesday to place some additional restrictions on the embrace of accessory dwelling units, which are smaller additions often placed on the same property as larger single-family homes.

The original bill would have allowed ADUs by right in single-family zones across the state with no limit on how many could be constructed. But the House voted to change that to allow only one ADU by right per property, and to require owners to seek special municipal permits for any units beyond that.

No one spoke in opposition to the change, which representatives approved 130-28.

Arciero said while introducing the amendment that the overall accessory dwelling unit policy could generate about 8,000 units of new housing in the next five years.

That's a lower estimate than Healey's: when the administration rolled out the original housing bond bill, officials estimated the ADU measure would lead to 10,000 new units over five years.

MBTA Communities Act changes rejected

The House also turned aside a batch of proposed changes to the MBTA Communities Act, including an outright repeal of the controversial measure and an effort to apply it to every single city and town.

Several representatives, mostly Republicans, sought to use the housing bond bill to alter the contours of the MBTA Communities Act. That law received little fanfare when it was enacted in 2021, but it has since morphed into a pressure point as some cities and towns bristle at the burden of zoning for more multifamily housing.

"Talking with many of my colleagues in this chamber, I know it is not what we thought it was, and the impact on communities is severe," Rep. Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican, said of the MBTA Communities Act. He added, "Our communities are already struggling, and the MBTA Communities implementation will devastate many communities, including mine."

Lombardo offered an amendment that he said would have exempted any MBTA community from the requirement to allow multifamily housing by right in at least one district if it already has enough affordable housing stock under another law known as Chapter 40B.

Representatives rejected that measure 27-131. They also shot down another proposal with a 32-126 vote that would have created an appeals process by which municipalities could request relief from the law's zoning requirements if they are unable to meet infrastructure needs, are worried about environmental impacts or have concerns about harm to historical properties.

Minority Leader Brad Jones of North Reading, who filed the latter amendment, said he wanted to "create the narrowest flexibility for communities that are trying to deal with this zoning reform."

But Democrats contended that adding an appeals process to the existing system would, as Rep. Meghan Kilcoyne of Clinton put it, "go against the spirit of the MBTA Communities Law."

"We have been talking for months about the critical juncture that we're at in this state, about the critical need for housing, and the restrictions proposed in this amendment run the risk of potentially muzzling our ability to produce housing at one of the most critical points where we need it most," Kilcoyne said.

The law triggered a high-profile legal fight between state authorities and Milton. After voters in the town of about 29,000 people rejected a zoning plan that would have complied with the law, the Healey administration revoked some grant funding and Attorney General Andrea Campbell filed a lawsuit.

Some argue Milton should not be subject to the law's requirements on "rapid transit" communities because it is served only by the Mattapan Trolley, not any other part of the MBTA's core subway system.

Driscoll, a Democrat, sought to use the housing bond bill to create a new in-between definition for his Milton hometown based on its trolley service, but his colleagues rejected the idea on an unrecorded voice vote.

"This amendment is not meant to exempt the town from zoning obligations as part of the law. It is an effort to right-size and reclassify those zoning obligations for the service that we have today," Driscoll told his colleagues.

Two other proposals the House rejected on unrecorded voice votes would have eliminated the MBTA Communities Act language altogether, or instead expanded it to apply to every single municipality in the state.

Democrat Rep. Colleen Garry of Dracut, who filed both of those changes, said she believes it is "unconstitutional" to put so much of the housing-development pressure on cities and towns near T service.

"Why isn't the entire commonwealth working on this? Why is the MBTA Act not affecting western Mass. or central Mass.? Why are 115 communities taking on this burden instead of 351 cities and towns?" Garry said. "I would suggest, respectfully, that if the housing was put in central Mass. or western Mass. where there's more land, the companies would come there, too, so you'd have an economic development driver in those sections as well."

Supporters of the law favor more housing near transit hubs in an effort to make it easier for people to get around without driving. 

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