Column: Zoning legislation critical for region to meet housing needs

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff photoGov. Charlie Baker speaks during the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce’s “Breakfast with the Governor” event Thursday morning at The Gloucester House.

Gov. Charlie Baker made a compelling case recently that local zoning decisions requiring “supermajority” votes jeopardize economic growth. Speaking to the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce on June 13, the governor said “there’s a sense of urgency … almost desperation” about the state’s lackluster growth in housing. Part of the administration’s solution is to change the law through the Housing Choices Act to allow approval of zoning amendments and special permits by majority vote instead of the two-thirds now required.

Given the need, zoning should not require a supermajority based on what the governor described as century-old rules, which have long outlived usefulness. Notably, Massachusetts is only one a few states requiring a supermajority to change local zoning.

Further evidence came Wednesday, June 26, with release of a report by The Boston Foundation showing that workers are being forced into more lengthy commutes -- and companies are finding it harder to find employees -- because of a housing deficit. The report’s lead author called the bill a “logical first step” to address the shortfall.

Facts tell a powerful story of why the bill should be supported. And why the legislation should be a clean bill, without the extraneous provisions that often doom good legislation, even when there is “a sense of urgency” bordering on desperation.

Comparing two averages, one covering 2001 to 2004 and the other 2015 to 2018, reveals a sharp decline in the average annual number of building permits issued in Massachusetts from about 17,000 a year to less than 14,000 a year, a drop of about 20%.

Essex County was hit much harder with a drop of 47% in single and multi-family permits.

Three prominent Essex County coastal communities with substantial commercial and industrial activity saw declines between the 2001-04 and 2015-18 periods of 45% in Gloucester, 62% in Beverly and 85%, or more, in Salem. There has been some rebound since the low point in 2010, but nowhere near enough, especially with population growth of about 8 percent.

Baker, in Gloucester, cited recent votes in Salem on three projects that fell short of the required two-thirds vote for approval. Two passed 7-4 but failed because 8-3 was required. Supermajorities are hard to come by in any deliberative body.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll in February said, “There is perhaps no more critical issue impacting Massachusetts’ cities and towns… Like many communities in Greater Boston, Salem is witnessing a sharp decline in the affordability and availability of housing…” In March, she told the Boston Globe that “Some people seem to think this is a single ... (but) it’s a triple. All day.”

The Baker-Polito legislation is supported by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, as well as business organizations such as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce and Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce. In addition to support from Salem Mayor Driscoll, it has support from Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken and real estate and builder associations.

Mayor Theken called the Housing Choices Act “an important complement to the city’s Housing Production Plan to make more housing available in Gloucester. It also fits very well with initiatives we have underway to minimize local barriers to housing within the zoning ordnance. It has my full support.”

Housing is just one of the issues Gov. Baker talked about at the recent Gloucester meeting. A related issue is the impact malls and online shopping have had on downtown areas. Housing in or near downtown is increasingly important to keeping the downtown a vital and vibrant part of a community. Parking is another consideration, one requiring careful community planning to ensure that employers, employees, residents and visitors are accommodated.

According to Cape Ann Chamber CEO Ken Riehl, “A lack of available housing has a direct impact on the economy as employers reach further and further from home to fill jobs. It’s a frequent topic of concern for businesses, along with transportation and infrastructure. All need to be addressed, and housing is high on our list of concerns.”

Among the provisions in the legislation that would qualify for simple majority votes are actions to encourage housing in town centers and near mass transit, and accessory dwelling units such as “in-law” apartments.

Housing developments take time to put together. Design, engineering, financing and marketing can be complex and time-consuming. Zoning decisions on their own, especially if a supermajority is needed for approval, often frustrate investment when investment should be encouraged and supported. The Housing Choices Act will help encourage development. It is one step, a very important step, toward a more comprehensive housing strategy and should become law.

Carl Gustin is a Gloucester resident and retired executive who writes occasionally on national, regional and local issues.