BOSTON (SHNS) – A new housing production law has been on the books in Massachusetts for nearly two months, and communities should proceed “full steam ahead” to embrace the changes, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy said Wednesday.
While walking real estate leaders through the so-called “Housing Choice” provisions in the economic development bill Gov. Charlie Baker signed in January, Kennealy also urged municipalities not to reset the permitting process on any projects that were in the pipeline when the vote threshold for many local zoning changes dropped from two-thirds to a simple majority.
His encouragement comes as many communities head into the spring Town Meeting season, where local construction and development is often a major topic.
“Housing choice will determine what the vote threshold needed for success is, but I hope folks aren’t tapping the brakes at all on projects and rezoning,” Kennealy said. “It’s full steam ahead, and now you’ve got an easier path to do it. The only change I can imagine folks want to do is separating things out that qualify for the simple majority.”
Baker started his push in December 2017 to make zoning changes easier to accomplish, saying that the higher threshold stalls many projects that could add to the state’s insufficient housing supply.
His proposal was unsuccessful in two consecutive lawmaking sessions, but the Legislature approved similar language as part of a $626 million economic development bill that Baker signed in January.
In the Wednesday presentation hosted by commercial real estate association NAIOP Massachusetts, Kennealy said the update will “unlock production of all types of housing all across the commonwealth” without overriding local decision-making.
The voting threshold changed immediately with Baker’s signature in every city and town except Boston, which has its own zoning statute. That means any zoning changes up for local approval this spring will only need to secure a simple majority of the voting body.
Amendments that could now occur with a smaller vote share include allowing accessory dwelling units by right, creating a smart growth district near public transit, and decreasing the acreage for single-family home zoning.
Kennealy and Chris Kluchman, deputy director of the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Community Services Division, were both careful to stress that the law mostly does not impose significant production mandates and instead eases restrictions.
“There’s nothing in the Housing Choice changes that requires anybody to make any zoning amendments,” Kluchman said.
DHCD could not immediately identify any zoning changes made with the new threshold since Baker signed the law, though Kennealy said the update applies to zoning-related articles on Town Meeting warrants this spring.
One area where the new law does create requirements, however, is on the cities and towns served by the MBTA. Those communities must zone at least one district to allow multi-family housing by right.
Municipalities that fail to comply with that mandate will not be eligible for MassWorks grants or Housing Choice capital grants, according to Kennealy. However, he said penalties will not take effect until DHCD replaces preliminary guidance issued Jan. 29 with a final version.
“We want to work collaboratively with communities and other stakeholders to figure out what the best guidance is, so for now, everyone’s eligible for the grant programs that they are eligible for now. There’s no penalty, if you will, until we come up with a more wholesome guidance,” Kennealy said.
“I think it’s really important,” he added of the multifamily zoning requirement. “It’s got great potential to develop a lot more housing near public transit. That’s a key part of our strategy, but we want to make sure we get this one right and make sure we come up with guidance that works for all of our communities.”
Supporters and the administration have long said that the reforms will help ease a strained housing market, particularly in eastern Massachusetts. Between 1960 and 1990, Kennealy said, Massachusetts permitted about 900,000 new units, and from 1990 to 2020 it only permitted about 470,000.
The administration plans to track implementation of the new law to monitor its impacts on production. Kennealy warned Wednesday that the sharply limited supply of housing units drives up prices across the state.
Massachusetts home prices were close to the national average in 1980, he said, but since then, have increased more than any other state. He said about half of Massachusetts homeowner households pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing, while one in four renters pay 50 percent or more of their income toward housing.
“We won’t be able to compete economically and attract and retain talent unless we solve our housing crisis,” Kennealy said.