Polito Touts Housing Choices Bill in Williamstown
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker continued Tuesday its statewide blitz to promote legislation it hopes will allow communities to more easily adapt zoning bylaws to meet the commonwealth's need for housing.
The Act to Promote Housing Choices would lower the threshold for most zoning bylaw amendments related to housing from its current two-thirds "supermajority" to a simple majority vote.
On Tuesday afternoon, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael Kennealy joined local officials in the common room at the Highland Woods senior housing project to explain why the proposed change is necessary.
Polito explained the scope of the housing crisis in Massachusetts.
"While our population has grown by over half a million people since 2000, we clearly have not kept up with the pace of housing growth," she said. "In the '80s and '90s, we were producing about 30,000 to 40,000 new units of housing, which was a good pace. In the last couple of decades, we've been building about 8,000 to 10,000 units of housing.
"So, clearly, off track."
And even though Tuesday's event was in Berkshire County, home of the commonwealth's steepest population declines this century, diversifying the housing stock is an issue, officials say.
"Maybe if you make it easier for young families to find housing and have more housing density in our downtowns, we can get some of that population to come back," Kennealy said prior to the start of Tuesday's event.
Williamstown officials would agree with that sentiment.
Planning Board Chairwoman Amy Jeschawitz was among the scheduled speakers at the hour-long event.
Her body has put before May's annual town meeting the kind of zoning bylaw proposal that is intended to be helped by Baker's "Housing Choices" legislation. The Williamstown Planning Board openly has discussed the difficulty of crafting bylaws that will both allow meaningful change to happen and palatable enough to clear the two-thirds majority threshold.
"So, as you can all guess, I am definitely a fan of the Housing Choices initiative that is being put forth," Jeschawitz said.
"We've done well in our business zones with mixed use. We've done some good things there. … But when it comes to our residential zones, that's where we have the hardest time, convincing the people who live here to make changes to allow other people to come and live in the community."
Williamstown Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas said the Housing Choices bill will make zoning bylaw amendments more like other questions that come before town meeting, requiring a simple majority for passage.
"I think, most importantly, as scientists, as I am, it will give us the opportunity to test different strategies," Thomas said. "I mean … no one knows the answer, but you've got to try some things to figure it out. And when you need a supermajority to try anything, it's really hard, right?"
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, were among the officials to speak at Tuesday's event.
Hinds talked about housing being one of the fundamental issues that could impede a state economy that otherwise is doing well.
"We definitely look forward to rolling up our sleeves on the legislation and doing all we can to support our communities," Hinds said.
Barrett was more full-throated in his support of Baker's initiative, which is before the Legislature for the second straight session.
"The Baker administration, I can't say enough good things," Barrett said. "I've said this several times over the past four years, they get it, they understand it, and they're dealing with it.
"Hopefully, the Legislature will be stepping up to the plate and doing our job and making sure programs like this are successful. This certainly is a model that other communities should follow around here, and, as [Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch] said, giving you the necessary tools to do the job."
Local officials used the appearance by Kennealy and Polito, who has visited all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, to celebrate Williamstown's success with the subsidized housing project, Highland Woods, built in response to the loss of hundreds of homes at the former Spruces Mobile Home Park after Tropical Storm Irene.
Elton Ogden of Berkshire Housing Development Corp., which built Highland Woods, was on hand to welcome the lieutenant governor and housing secretary and remind them about another Williamstown project, the former Photech building at 330 Cole Ave., which is currently before DHCD in search of funding.
Kennealy touted the administration's efforts to support affordable housing, including a $1.8 billion housing bond bill, "the biggest such bond bill in the history of the state," he said.
"We've invested, since the start of the Baker-Polito administration, $1.1 billion in the housing ecosystem, which created 17,000 units, 15,000 of which are affordable, 2,600 of which are affordable to people with extremely low income," Kennealy said.
But publicly-financed housing is just part of the solution, he said. The Promote Housing Choices Act would help municipalities do their part by modifying zoning bylaws without needing a two-third majority either of city councillors or town meeting voters.
"What we need is for the market to respond," Kennealy said. "There's only so much government can do. We need the housing market to be more functioning.
"And that's where Housing Choice comes into play. The particulars of the bill was the byproduct of a lot of brainstorming sessions and meetings and focus groups with a broad range of stakeholders. And what we settled on were nine different types of housing developments where if, in our view, we could lower the approval threshold from a super majority to a simple majority, we could unlock all types of housing production across the state."
Among the zoning proposals that would go from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority if the bill passes, according to a news release from the administration are the following:
• Building mixed-use, multifamily, and starter homes, and adopting 40R "Smart Growth" zoning in town centers and near transit.
• Allowing the development of accessory dwelling units, or "in-law" apartments.
• Approving Smart Growth or Starter Homes districts that put housing near existing activity centers.
• Granting increased density through a special permit process.
• Allowing for the transfer of development rights and enacting natural resource protection zoning.
• Reducing parking requirements and dimensional requirements, such as minimum lot sizes.
The "accessory dwelling units" provision is particular note in Williamstown, where one of the Planning Board's proposed amendments for May's meeting has drawn fire from, among others, a member of the five-person panel.
On Tuesday, neither Jeschawitz nor Town Planner Andrew Groff, who provides staff support to the Planning Board, expressed an interest in pulling the current proposal and saving it for a day when Baker's Promote Housing Choices Act may have passed and created an easier path for the changes.
In his prepared remaks, Hoch alluded to the competing interests that have driven debate at the Planning Board for the last two years.
"We're blessed to be in a place where people want to stay, which is wonderful, and also blessed to be in a place where people want to come to," Hoch said. "So there's an inherent challenge based in those two things."
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