Governor Baker: Lack of new housing threatens booming economy

Charlie Baker

BOSTON (AP) — Ask Gov. Charlie Baker what the biggest threat is to the state’s sizzling economy, and he’s likely to say the sluggish growth in new housing.

The paucity of new housing — according to Baker — is driving up rental and mortgage costs, forcing workers to move farther and farther from where they work, putting extra pressure on the state’s overburdened transportation system and in turn making it harder for the firms fueling the state’s economic surge to find the employees they need.

“If you can’t produce housing, you can’t solve any of our problems,” Baker told reporters this week after detailing a housing bill that largely mirrored a bill he submitted to lawmakers last session but was never voted on.

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The Republican said the bill is crucial to his administration’s goal of 135,000 new housing units in Massachusetts by 2025. Baker said that after producing about 30,000 new housing units each year for four decades, the state has fallen to building 8,000 to 10,000 new homes during the past 25 years.

The bill would make a number of changes to laws governing the building of new housing.

One of the most critical changes would be to reduce the voting threshold for a certain zoning permits issued by local permit-granting authorities from a two-thirds “supermajority” vote to a simple majority vote.

It may sound arcane, but Baker and the bill’s backers say streamlining the process could help speed the production of more housing.

The bill has the backing of more than a dozen mayors and city managers in the Boston area, including Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan and Quincy Mayor Thomas Koch — all Democrats.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, who also supports Baker’s bill, called the lack of enough housing “the most critical issue impacting communities like mine.”

She described some of the bureaucratic hurdles needed to create housing, including eight months spent trying to get some initial approvals on a project to turn former Roman Catholic school buildings in Salem, currently vacant, into housing.

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“The character of our community’s at risk right now. The folks who pour your coffee and pour your beer and you enjoy seeing working downtown are fast not being able to live in the city where they work,” the Democrat said at a Wednesday news conference called by Baker. “It has to do with rising rents, rising housing prices and not enough housing production in our community across all spectrums.”

Some housing advocates say the state should focus on creating stronger protections to aid longtime tenants facing eviction because of gentrification and soaring rents.

Lynn United for Change, a volunteer-based community organization focused on fighting unjust evictions and foreclosures, sounded a skeptical note about Baker’s proposal.

“Lower income/working class people are experiencing a crisis of evictions/displacement/unaffordability right now. That’s why we won’t settle for a bill that helps wealthier people, the RE industry, etc. but ignores our needs,” the group tweeted Thursday.

“We need concrete steps toward more #housing production AND more affordability + tenant protections. NOT action on production but vague promises on the rest. The damage caused by destroying communities through displacement is irreversible; help is needed NOW,” the group added.

Baker said he’s not discouraged about the bill’s failure to gain traction in the Legislature during the last session. He said he hopes for a better reception as the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, ramps up its new two-year session.

Doing nothing to address the state’s housing challenges isn’t an option, Baker said.

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“This problem gets worse every year that goes by and we don’t do something about it,” Baker said, advocating for a bit of patience along with the sense of urgency.

“I’ve been involved in plenty of issues over the years where it took more than one trip through the branches to get something done,” he said. “Sometimes complicated stuff takes a while.”