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Lawmakers grapple with Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to address housing ‘crisis’

Residential Mortgage Services, a housing lender in Southern New England, has 534 applicants who were approved for loans but can’t find a house, said vice president of underwriting Terri Sicilia.

“We have many loan officers who are working with several applicants, pre-approving them — then they’re outbidding one another,” Sicilia said.

Only 30 percent of applicants the company approves for loans ever buy a house.

The lack of available housing in the state is a problem that Gov.

Charlie Baker on Tuesday called a “crisis.” Baker testified before the Legislature’s Housing Committee, alongside Lt.

Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael Kennealy, at a hearing on a Baker-sponsored bill, H.

3507. The bill would make it easier for municipalities to pass zoning changes that encourage more housing.

Baker said median home values in Massachusetts are the third highest in the country, after California and Hawaii. Median rents are the highest in the country, at $2,500 for a two-bedroom rental.

Over the last 30 years, Massachusetts has halved its housing production, compared to the prior three decades.

“In order to maintain and grow the Massachusetts economy, we believe being able to live and work in the community you call home must remain within reach,” Baker said.

“If we fail to create more affordable options, our workforce and businesses will eventually be forced to relocate.”

Currently, a municipal zoning board ne a two-thirds vote to approve a zoning amendment or special permit.

Massachusetts is one of only 10 states — and the only one in New England — that require a supermajority vote to change zoning rules.

Baker’s bill would change that, to require only a majority vote to adopt certain zoning bylaws that encourage more housing.

For example, if a zoning board wants to allow homeowners to build an “in-law apartment” without a special permit, the board could adopt that bylaw with a majority vote. It would be easier for towns to adopt measures to reduce lot sizes or parking requirements.

The bill would let towns designate specific districts — such as downtown or near public transportation — where it would be easier to get permission to build multi-family housing or mixed-use developments.

The bill would also allow a simple majority vote to approve permits for multi-family or mixed-use projects with 10% affordable units, built in commercial centers or near transit.

Baker, in his testimony, cited multiple recent projects that were voted down due to the supermajority requirement. In Lenox, for example, 54% of residents at town meeting voted for a mixed-income rental housing project, which would have had 41 affordable units and 15 acres of open space.

“These are the apartments for the recent WPI graduate that the local manufacturer ne to fill her open job posting,” Baker said. “These are the condos that grandparents need to downsize to so that they can stay near their grandchildren in the Berkshires.

The proposal is getting support from municipal, real estate and business groups. But some advocates for poor people say it does not do enough to create affordable housing.

Elena Letona, director of Neighbor to Neighbor, a community organizing group in Gateway Cities, said the bill does not recognize the scope of the state’s housing crisis. “It assumes that just producing more housing will fix the problem, but it’s not recognizing or it’s ignoring the fact that there are a lot of people in the state that won’t ever be able to pay market prices,” said Letona.

Letona said people with minimum wage jobs, seniors on fixed incomes, or young people saddled with student debt still will not be able to afford homes. She wants a conversation about affordability, how to raise revenue for affordable housing and how to help tenants.

Baker first introduced his bill last session, but it did not pass.

Charlie Baker tries to address housing ‘crisis’ in Massachusetts

Housing Committee Chairman Rep.

Kevin Honan, D-Boston, noted, “Zoning reform died 12 to 14 years in a row because some people think it goes too far and other people think it doesn’t go far enough.”

This year, a large coalition of outside groups are pushing lawmakers to adopt the policy.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said the city recently saw 3,400 families apply for 35 units of affordable housing. In Salem, Mayor Kim Driscoll regularly hears from seniors waiting 18 months for subsidized housing.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said housing is increasingly becoming unaffordable — but there are few large parcels to develop, and she struggles to attract developers.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, called Baker’s bill the most significant zoning reform measure in five decades.

“Passing this bill now would kick-start a wave of community-based proposals to increase housing production,” Beckwith said.

Several Realtors’ groups support the bill.

Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development association, said Massachusetts has one of the lowest rates of housing production in the country. The number of communities with median home prices above $1 million has doubled in the past decade.

“Business leaders frequently struggle to attract the best talent when competing with other states that provide more affordable housing opportunities,” Small said.

According to the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, the median price of homes currently listed in Boston is $625,000.

“Our children are living with parents because there are not enough homes on the market; our neighbors are moving away because they can’t afford the home prices because of the high demand and bidding wars and our travel commutes are getting longer because there aren’t enough homes near where we work,” said Deborah Sousa, executive director of the Massachusetts Mortgage Bankers Association.

The progressive Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, an organization that promotes zoning reform, supports Baker’s bill.

Andre Leroux, executive director of the alliance, said the bill will help ensure that new housing is no longer so concentrated in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville.

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Advocates for low-income individuals attend a Housing Committee hearing on May 14, 2019. (Shira Schoenberg / The Republican)

Most criticism of the bill came from those who believe it focuses too much on market rate housing rather than affordable housing.

Advocates for low-income individuals wore stickers reading “luxury housing won’t help us” and stood in protest as Baker, Polito and Kennealy testified.

Darnell Johnson, regional coordinator for Right to the City Boston, an advocacy group that works to stop the displacement of low-income residents, said there are “more pressing issues” for lawmakers to deal with, relating to protections for tenants and homeowners going through foreclosure, and new revenue that can be tapped to build more affordable housing.

“We do need more housing, but we need more housing that is affordable,” Johnson said. “To allow for luxury development to come into the state in which luxury pricing is not what the residents that live here need or can afford, we think that’s wrong.

Baker acknowledged that more ne to be done to increase affordable housing. But he said part of the reason so much luxury housing is being built is because the zoning rule creates an uncertain process.

“If you have to spend five years and $5 million getting something through the local planning and zoning process, you want to make sure whatever you build ..

. you’re going to get your money back,” Baker said.

Baker added, “If you don’t produce any housing, you can’t produce any affordable housing.”

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