The odds are long, but Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker is holding out hope that a housing bill could make it through the state legislature before the end of the year.
It has been a year since Baker announced an Act to Promote Housing Choices, a proposal that is intended to jump-start new home construction in Massachusetts, where the shortage of housing is driving up costs to the point where economists warn it threatens the state’s well-being.
"We have been underperforming in housing production for literally almost 30 years," Baker said to reporters this week in Springfield. "There is not a lot of inventory. When inventory goes on the market it gets priced out of sight. People can't afford it and they have to move farther and farther away from where they work to find a place they can afford to live."
The bill, which Baker said is key to his goal of building 135,000 new homes by 2025, failed to make it across the finish line by the time formal legislative sessions stopped at the end of July. Now the Republican governor said discussions continue with Democratic legislative leaders about moving the bill through during informal sessions when a single “no” can block it.
"We worked very hard to put a coalition together of home builders, land use folks, real estate folks, environmentalists, and municipal officials to get support for that legislation," said Baker.
Baker’s plan to spur new housing construction is to make it easier for municipalities to change local zoning laws. It would allow cities and towns to adopt zoning rules with a simple majority vote rather than the two-thirds vote as state law has long required.
Housing advocates say the super majority is a very high hurdle that lets NIMBY forces block the building of new apartments and condominiums – the kind of denser housing that can be more affordable.
But any attempts at weakening local control, which is viewed as a cornerstone of democracy in Massachusetts, have historically been doomed on Beacon Hill.
Additionally, there are legislators who demand a more comprehensive approach to housing. Baker said he is open to listening to other ideas.
"The part I want everybody to remember is we are not talking about something where people think there isn't a problem," Baker said. "The real key is coming up with a solution we can get most people to agree on. So far, we think we have one and we hope we can get it through."
Democratic State Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke agrees that something has to be done about housing.
"There are lot of elements in the Baker bill that are good, but there were elements in other bills that were good that haven't come to the finish line as well," said Vega.
Vega said housing has to be a priority that gets taken up early on in the next two-year legislative session.
" We can use the budget (process) as the vehicle," said Vega. "We have to get more housing stock online across this Commonwealth, obviously in Boston but also out here in western Mass, both affordable and market-rate and create that way for people to stay in their community and move up the economic ladder."
There’s been talk about a compromise that would have the legislature pass the Housing Choices bill now, with a promise from Baker to support broader reforms when the legislature reconvenes in January.