GLOUCESTER — Gov. Charlie Baker won last year's election with 65.8 percent of the vote, one of the largest margins of victory ever for a Massachusetts governor.
But, as Baker noted at Thursday's Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce breakfast, that same margin wouldn't be enough for a new housing proposal to pass in Massachusetts communities.
"In Salem, their City Council passed three housing initiatives, 7-4, 7-4 and 6-5," he said. "Well, guess what? That's not two-thirds. Two-thirds is 8-3."
Baker pointed out the comparison as a way to highlight his administration's effort to change what he called "arcane" rules that make it difficult for new housing proposals to make it through local government boards. Baker has filed legislation that would allow zoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds super majority.
Baker, speaking to a crowd of about 125 at The Gloucester House, said the state's population has increased by 500,000 in the last 15 years, yet has built very little housing to accommodate them. Massachusetts also has more "empty-nesters" than ever who want to stay in their communities but have no place to live if they sell their house, he said.
Baker said communities looking to revitalize their downtowns can no longer rely exclusively on retail, much of which is now online, and need a mix of housing and entertainment.
"To do that with the rules and the standards that we've had in the Commonwealth literally for almost 100 years which were based on a very different time doesn't make a lot of sense," he said. "There's a sense of urgency and I would argue almost desperation amongst a lot of people about what we're not getting done in this space."
Housing was just one of many topics addressed by Baker in his remarks. Of particular interest to Gloucester, he mentioned another piece of legislation he has filed that would create a trust fund to help cities and towns pay for infrastructure to protect against climate change. The trust would be funded in part by an increase on excise and real estate transfers.
Baker said his administration is continuing to focus on the opioid crisis. He said officials are in the midst of "listening sessions" throughout the state, which will be followed by new legislative proposals later this year or early next year.
"We've seen some modest progress, but we have miles to go," he said. "The opioid epidemic didn't happen overnight. It happened over the course of 15 or 20 years. You can't just pass a couple of bills and snap your fingers and expect it all to be better."
Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken praised Baker and the state for working closely with the city when Gloucester-based National Fish & Seafood closed suddenly last month. The company re-opened three weeks later and re-hired 80 percent of the employees, she said.
"The state came in, pulled together a team that I've never seen," Romeo Theken said. "It was absolutely amazing."
State Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante also spoke at the breakfast. Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, presented Baker with gift bags for himself and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
After the meeting, Baker was asked about the recent derailment of an MBTA car that has led to delays and more frustration for commuters. He said the state and the MBTA are spending "over a billion dollars" in improvements to the Red Line. The work is taking longer than everyone would like because it has to be done mostly on nights and weekends to keep service interruptions to a minimum, he said.
"I know that's incredibly frustrating for people but you've got to strike a balance between how fast you can do the work and continue to run the system so that people can use it every day," he said. "But I get the fact that people are frustrated."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.