The same old forces that got Massachusetts into its housing crisis are again threatening to stop a key bill that represents our best shot at tackling the problem any time soon.
Officials in Needham are objecting to Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice bill, which would lower the threshold for housing-related zoning changes to pass local planning and select boards from the current two-thirds majority to a simple majority. They want towns like Needham, which have met their obligation under the state’s Chapter 40B law to make sure 10 percent of the town’s homes are affordable housing, to be exempted.
We’ve done enough to lower housing prices in the state, they argue from their million-dollar homes – literally. The median price among the 337 single-family homes sold in Needham through Oct. 31 is $1.1 million, according to The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman.
Their call – and obstruction from progressive legislators who fear the bill will be a giveaway to luxury developers – has caused enough waffling in the House of Representatives that the bill is currently stuck in committee until it’s clear it can pass.
Whether or not Needham’s argument is made in bad faith depends on your view of wealthy suburban communities and the small percentage of voters who regularly turn out for their municipal elections. Either way, however, it rests on an untenable premise. Nearly two in five of the 100-plus communities within 25 miles of the State House have met their Chapter 40B target, meaning Needham’s carve-out could gut any efforts to add housing where it’s needed most.
If Baker’s bill passes, Needham and other suburban towns won’t be suddenly forced, 40B-style, to allow any housing development that comes along, and a rogue, pro-development selectperson won’t be able to suddenly rezone the entire town for skyscrapers. Officials will still be accountable to their voters, many of whom it must be said are no fans of new housing.
What Baker’s bill will do is allow cities and towns who want to welcome new residents to enact the will of clear majorities among their voters and representatives. The current two-thirds standard allows often-immovable minorities to stymie the will of clear majorities on an issue whose resolution will make or break the state’s economy. Business groups whisper darkly of the region closing in on a tipping point where firms will choose to grow elsewhere because they can’t afford to pay employees enough to afford adequate housing.
As these forward-thinking towns rezone themselves, they will help bring down the cost of building housing. According to estimates calculated by CBRE Boston for Banker & Tradesman this fall, new units in triple-deckers cost $295,000 to $385,000 to build, each. In the most common type of multifamily building, those figures are $390,000 and $500,000 per unit. Much of that cost is driven by the price of the building site. Freeing up more land for even small projects will let developers meet the profit targets their investors and business model demand while building more moderately-priced units closer to climate-saving mass transit.