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March 3, 2016

Panel recommends 'millenial villages' and other housing reforms

Katie Lannan/SHNS Sen. Forry offers remarks at the Wednesday release of a report by a Senate committee proposing new recommendations on housing.

Arguing the need for a "revolution in housing production" to keep pace with demand, a report released Thursday by a Senate committee recommends 19 proposals taking aim at everything from foreclosures, gentrification, homelessness, preservation and rehabilitation, production, public housing, support services, zoning and housing models.

Along with support for housing-related legislation and expansion of existing programs, the committee's report calls for several new initiatives, including plans to develop "millennial villages" to free up housing stock for working families and to provide state assistance to historic buildings in urban areas and other former industrial communities that have experienced blight.

"Massachusetts is currently dealing with a severe housing crisis due in large part to a low rate of housing production which has not kept pace with population growth and needs, soaring rents that have outpaced wages, and the lingering effects of the foreclosure crisis," the report reads. "As a result, there is a shortage of suitable and affordable units for young workers, growing families, and the increasing senior population."

The renovation of industrial buildings into market-rate housing and the development of "appropriately-sized and priced housing for the 20-34 year olds" would serve the joint goals of creating additional housing for middle-income families and freeing up existing stock for them, the report said.

The report says that the price of triple-decker apartments rose by 95 percent between 2009 and 2015, pushing Greater Boston families out of the rental market as millennials share three- and four-bedroom houses traditionally occupied by families.

A "millennial village" housing development would involve price ranges for all income levels and a range of unit sizes, from "micro apartments" to studios to multi-bedroom units for students and young professionals, the report said.

"The whole idea behind the millennial village is to work with developers and architects, designers, construction firms, trades to come up with innovative ideas for housing that would be affordable but also really exciting for young millenials," said economist Barry Bluestone, a committee member and director of Northeastern University's Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.

Bluestone said he was inspired by housing in Barcelona, Spain, where six otherwise individual units shared common living space, including a kitchen.

During a presentation of the report, committee members said the two demographic groups growing in size in Massachusetts -- young professionals and elders -- are most often looking to live in multi-family homes in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods and not single-family houses on large lots.

"All of these communities, we need them to step up and create housing that's affordable, and what is that?" asked Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, who chairs the Joint Committee on Housing and led the special Senate panel. "It's not strangers coming into your community, it's not folks leaving Boston and coming in, but it's for your kids who are leaving college that graduated and want to live back in the community where they grew up, but they can't afford a $550,000 home. It's the senior, the parents, the grandparents, that raised their kids in this amazing community and they want to stay there and die there, but they can't."

Sen. Harriette Chandler, vice chair of the special committee, said the group included experts in over 30 housing-related issue areas, including representatives from landlord and tenant organizations.

The group proposed changes to zoning laws intended to encourage multi-family construction and increase housing production overall. It endorsed two bills (H 1111 and H 1107) before the Joint Committee on Housing that would allow multifamily zoning by right.

"My fingers have been all over zoning for a long time, and I must tell you, I've never been successful," Chandler said. "Well, maybe this is the year for it."

According to the report, 207 of the 351 Massachusetts municipalities have permitted no multifamily housing with more than five units in over a decade.

The report also calls for the appropriation of funds to expand training for local planning boards and zoning boards of appeals.

The Senate panel also proposed three new pieces of legislation, including two that would create new programs and one to allow property owners the right to construct one "accessory dwelling unit" --a self-contained apartment -- in single-family zoned districts.

One new program would give municipalities the option to create a "Homes Preservation Plan" that would provide homeowners over 65 years old, who earn less than the area median income, with property tax relief in exchange for granting the municipality right of first refusal if the owner sells the home. The city or town would have a set time period to exercise its right or assign the property to a non-profit developer for affordable housing.

The committee also seeks the creation of a "Tenant-Landlord Guarantee Pilot Program" that would help homeless families move into tenancy from emergency shelter in motels, and encourage landlords to rent to families who have experienced multiple evictions, have bad credit or face other housing barriers.

Any new legislation would likely be filed in the next legislative session, Chandler said, pointing to current bills the committee is "anxious to push."

Bills backed by the special committee include:

* H 2540 relative to low income housing tax credits

* S 1649/H 2756 to facilitate disposition of surplus property for the development of affordable and workforce housing

* H 3696 to establish an apprenticeship program to ready vacant public housing apartments for occupancy

* S 1464/H 2607 relative to the relief of mortgage debt

* S 109 relative to smart growth housing trust fund

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