Baker renews push to address housing shortage

CHRISTIAN M. WADE/CNHI photo/Gov. Charlie Baker, center, flanked by current and former state housing officials, on Wednesday expressed frustration over the Legislature's delay in approving a plan to boost the state's dwindling housing stock. Baker's plan, which calls for adding at least 135,000 new homes over the next five to seven years, remains stalled in a key legislative committee.

BOSTON — With state lawmakers returning from their August recess, Gov. Charlie Baker is renewing his push to address a shortage of housing that experts say is holding back the state’s economic growth.

Flanked by several current and former state housing officials, including members of former Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, Baker on Wednesday expressed frustration over the Legislature’s delay in approving a plan to boost the state’s dwindling housing stock.

His proposal calls for easing local zoning rules and adding at least 135,000 new homes statewide over the next five to seven years. But it remains stalled in a key legislative committee.

“Almost everybody who touches this issue says this is a problem, and we need to do something about it,” Baker fumed to reporters at a briefing Wednesday. “The problem is we haven’t done anything about it.”

Baker said a shrinking inventory of housing is driving up home prices and edging many first-time buyers out of the market. He said it’s also affecting the state’s economic growth and ability to attract new families and companies.

A key part of Baker’s plan eases local zoning restrictions by allowing town governing bodies to change local zoning with a simple majority vote. Currently a two-thirds vote is required.

Baker singled out Salem’s rejection of an overlay district in the city that was intended to provide a way for vacant church or municipal properties to be converted into housing. The city’s current rules do not allow multifamily housing in those areas. In March, the City Council voted 7-4 in support of the overlay, but the proposal needed eight votes, or two-thirds of the council, to pass.

“There are a lot of proposals that got more than 50% of the vote this past year,” he said. “It was heartbreaking to watch them go down because they were really good projects in places that needed them.”

Baker filed a similar proposal last year, but it failed to get through the House and Senate by the end of the formal legislative session. He refiled the proposal in March.

To be sure, there has been resistance to Baker’s plan from lawmakers who’ve complained it lacks provisions to increase affordable housing in the state, which has the sixth-highest rents in the country.

Baker said the plan would benefit affordable housing projects and give cities and towns more authority to redevelop their downtowns and create more multi-unit housing developments.

“It’s time to put this one to bed, get something done and get back into the housing production business,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “We really need to get this done.”

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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