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Call To Action On Housing Reform

Advocates Testify That Local Zoning Burdens Working Families

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Report after report from our region’s top housing experts have pointed to the indisputable connection between the dearth of new construction and Greater Boston’s ever higher home, condominium and apartment prices.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is pushing ahead with ambitious plans to create tens of thousands of new condos, homes and apartments, while Gov. Charlie Baker has been selling off surplus state land for new housing.

Yet the interim report card is in and it’s not all that encouraging. The fact is all these efforts to spur new residential construction and lift Greater Boston and Massachusetts as a whole out of its self-inflicted housing crisis appears to have barely moved the needle.

Consider the testimony recently delivered at the State House by a top executive of one of the Bay State’s top developers of affordable housing.

Scott Van Voorhis

Scott Van Voorhis

Eliza Datta is regional vice president of The Community Builders, a nonprofit developer that has preserved or built more than 12,000 below-market units over the past 50 years. In appearance before the Joint Committee on Housing, Datta spoke on behalf of a bevy of long-stalled bills aimed at trying to cut through the tangled web of local zoning rules in suburbs and towns across the state that often effectively bar all housing except for McMansions.

And Datta offered some sobering reflections on where we stand right now when it comes to coming to grips with our now decades-long housing crisis.

Massachusetts ranked a low 41 out of 50 states – 50 being dead last – in adding new housing from 2010 to 2013, she noted, citing Census figures.

The total supply of housing in the state – new condos, homes and apartments minus those converted to other uses or torn down – grew by just 5,300 units during the same period, or a measly .02 percent. By contrast, Massachusetts added more than 145,000 new residents over that three-year period, a 2.2 percent growth rate.

That’s not making progress; that’s falling farther behind.

“Massachusetts is not building enough housing to meet market demand, causing prices to rise and placing an increased burden on our working families,” Datta noted in her remarks.

This is not a new problem – as I have noted on these pages and elsewhere more than once – rather it is one that has been building for decades.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 1.26.55 PMLocal Policies Limit Opportunities

Today Massachusetts home prices are among the most expensive in the country, with the median price hitting a record $370,000 in May after a nearly 7 percent increase, according to The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman.

The culprit, of course, has been a big drop in home construction, which plunged 52 percent between the 1960s and 1990s, Datta noted. Apartment construction fell by 80 percent during the same period.

And just what, we may ask, is behind the great Massachusetts housing construction slowdown?

Datta correctly points the finger at local zoning rules put up not to regulate new housing, but to effectively bar all but large and expensive new homes on large lots.

There is also a growing trend to discourage families from moving in by restricting the housing that does get built to one or two bedrooms, or to encourage age-restricted, over-55 developments, she noted.

“Local policies … limit housing opportunities for families with children in many suburbs and small towns,” she said in her testimony.

There is no mystery what’s has driven the price of housing in Massachusetts, and especially in Greater Boston, to such obscene and ultimately unsustainable heights.

And it’s clear to anyone who has looked at the issue what the solution is – dismantling the stifling and obstructionist web of local zoning rules designed to benefit a minority of affluent homeowners at everyone else’s expense.

I suspect Rep. Kevin Honan (D-Brighton), chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing, and his fellow members are fully aware of the score. But sadly, testimony of developers and housing experts like Datta are likely to go unheeded. All signs point to another year of no action on local zoning reform, ensuring that our state’s housing slow-burn housing crisis will get even worse.

And yet our Democratic-controlled Legislature still likes to think of itself as the protector the middle and working class.

Well here’s their chance to be actually be relevant and tackle an issue that affects just about anyone in this state who has ever rented an apartment or bought a house.

It’s beyond time to do the right thing.

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Call To Action On Housing Reform

by Scott Van Voorhis time to read: 3 min