John Gollinger is scrambling.
Two months ago, Gollinger, the executive director of the Waltham Housing Authority, learned that the state is cutting its contribution to his budget next year by more than $300,000.
That will almost certainly mean a reduction in services for people who live in public housing in Waltham, many of whom are disabled, elderly, or extremely low income. Maintenance requests could go unheeded. Much-needed renovations could fall to the wayside.
Even more perplexing than the cuts, Gollinger says, is the reason for them: Waltham’s failure to comply with early procedural requirements of the state’s new MBTA Communities law, an ambitious effort to tackle Massachusetts’ housing crisis by mandating new multifamily zoning in communities served by the MBTA.
Zoning issues are typically a matter for planning departments and city councils, not housing authorities. If anything, Gollinger’s agency — which administers public housing and voucher programs for low-income renters — exists to deal with the fallout of Massachusetts’ sky-high housing costs, which have been fueled by restrictive local zoning rules.
“The question that we all have is, why are we involved in this?” he said.
Yet Waltham is one of six housing authorities that in late September received the same letter from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, a copy of which was obtained by the Globe. And that has put them on the front lines of a high-stakes game of chicken between Beacon Hill and local governments over the new zoning law, which has the potential to bring more than 100,000 apartment units to the state if communities comply.
And that “if” has become a major sticking point.
After dozens of communities protested the original MBTA zoning guidelines released earlier this year by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration, the vast majority of cities and towns have, at least in the planning stages, fallen in line. Last week, the state community development department said just eight of the 175 communities affected by the law had failed to file at least preliminary plans with the state for how they’ll go about zoning denser housing. That’s down from about 20 at the beginning of the year.
But there is still a simmering resistance among some residents and municipal officials, underscoring just how challenging it may be for incoming Governor-elect Maura Healey — who has said she plans to build on Baker’s efforts to tackle the housing shortage — to nudge communities into compliance over the next few years. Pushback from residents, particularly in town meeting communities where town-wide votes decide zoning rules, could be particularly difficult to overcome.
To many housing advocates, the question of enforcement looms large. And while budget cuts are harsh, they say, those cuts could be convincing. But the housing authority move has angered the impacted agencies — which also include those in Halifax, Hamilton, Saugus, Whitman, and Woburn — as well as officials in those communities who say they weren’t adequately warned that such action was on the table.
“If the intent of this new law is to stimulate more affordable housing in cities and towns, [the state community development department is] doing the complete opposite by hurting the housing authorities as severely as they are,” said Donna Brown-Rego, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “They’re taking away the lifeblood of the housing authorities, the folks who are serving the lowest of the low, as a way of motivating the towns to comply.”
In their deliberations over the new zoning requirements, most cities and towns have focused on two grant programs the state has put at risk if they don’t comply: MassWorks, which provides money for street and utility improvements, and Housing Choice, which offers funding to communities that build housing or reform zoning. Some have speculated that a few communities may forgo these funds rather than agree to the denser zoning.
But there’s a third program tied into the law as well: the Local Capital Projects Fund, which the state has used to help subsidize local housing authorities. It amounts to 10.6 percent of the subsidy the state gives housing authorities.
The state said in the letters — which were first reported in the Contrarian Boston newsletter — that housing authorities in noncompliant communities will have to submit a state budget in 2023 that is 10.6 percent lower. In some cases, such as Waltham, that can represent hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The funding will be restored, a community development spokesperson said, when the cities and towns come back into compliance with MBTA Communities.
One town wasted no time.
When Frank Lynam, the interim town administrator in Whitman, got that letter from the state, he submitted an action plan almost immediately. The planning process, he said, had gotten lost in the shuffle amid an unexpected leadership shakeup. But the prospect of budget cuts got his attention.
If MassWorks and Housing Choice — programs that can add to a town’s existing budget — were the carrot, said Lynam, “this is the stick. And they are really whacking us.”
“I don’t agree that we should have our housing authority targeted, but if you want to look at it from a perspective of getting towns in compliance, well, it worked in our case,” he said. “There was just no reason for us to take that hit.”
That may well be the point, said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. The MBTA Communities law really could help ease the housing crisis in Massachusetts, he said, but only if cities and towns get on board. And he noted that, for now anyway, compliance is as simple as filling out a form.
“The notion that there are real consequences is important,” said Ziegler. “It’s clear that a lot of communities are really acting in good faith. … But there needs to be something to nudge those other communities that might be hesitating along.”
The threat of budget cuts is just one piece of a multipronged approach supporters of the law are taking to bring communities on board. Local advocacy groups — including Abundant Housing Massachusetts, bolstered by a $500,000 grant from the Barr Foundation — are ramping up an organizing campaign they hope will help convince skeptical residents of the law’s importance.
But even in communities where local officials are supportive, some residents are pushing back.
In Rockport, for example, a group of residents in October sued the town and the state alleging the mandated zoning changes are unconstitutional. The lawsuit put Jason Shaw, chair of the Rockport Planning Board, in a box. The town in May adopted new zoning bylaws they hoped would put them in compliance, but Shaw has yet to learn if they meet state guidelines.
“My hands are tied,” he said. “If we move forward with making sure our zoning is in compliance, and then this lawsuit undoes all of it, that would be a tremendous waste of resources.”
And some towns are mulling even more drastic measures. In Kingston, Town Administrator Keith Hickey has floated the idea of shutting down the town’s commuter rail station in order to avoid the new zoning. Hickey said he worries allowing multifamily housing by right will usher in a wave of new development that could overwhelm the town’s resources.
“We’re looking at all of our options,” Hickey said. “If we as a town decide this new zoning is a bad idea, we’ll figure out where to go from there. Closing the station could be a way around it.”
A clear picture of compliance likely won’t begin to take shape for at least another year, when the first group of communities — those with access to the MBTA’s rapid transit system — reach a deadline to meet the guidelines. For now, though, housing authorities in noncompliant communities like Waltham find themselves stuck in limbo as municipal officials weigh the changes. Waltham city officials did not return requests for comment about their plans.
“I’m hoping for a Christmas present,” said Gollinger, “but I’m not holding my breath.”