New rules aim to ease housing crunch  

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy said communities should not be "tapping the brakes" on rezoning and construction projects now that the administration's long-sought zoning reforms are in law. 

BOSTON — The Baker administration is touting new rules aimed at boosting home building, saying the changes will help alleviate a housing crunch that has driven home prices and held back economic growth.

A law signed by Gov. Charlie Baker in January, as part of a $627 million economic development package, immediately allows town governing bodies to change local zoning with a simple majority vote. Previously a two-thirds vote was required.

During a live-streamed event on Wednesday, Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said the so-called "housing choice" provision will "unlock production of all types of housing."

"The role that municipalities play in housing production is critical," Kennealy said during the event hosted by NAIOP Massachusetts, a commercial real estate development association. "That's where the planning and zoning happens, so that's why we believe (this law) will have a foundational impact on our ability to create housing around the state."

He said a shrinking inventory of housing is driving up prices and edging many first-time buyers out of the market. The crunch is also affecting the state's economic growth, making it harder to attract new families and companies to Massachusetts.

The law is part of the Baker administration's ambitious goal to facilitate at least 135,000 new housing units by 2025.

Under the law, simple majorities of local planning and zoning boards can approve projects that come up for a vote this spring.

Critics have suggested the law lacks incentives to boost affordable housing. Baker vetoed a provision that would have required certain tax credits to go to developers whose buildings have at least 10% affordable units. He argued it would create unnecessary administrative barriers.

Kennealy noted the Baker administration has spent more than $1.4 billion since 2015 to expand the affordable housing supply, but those programs haven't increased the amount of market-based housing.

Chris Kluchman, deputy director of the Department of Housing and Community Development's community services division, noted the law doesn't impose any mandates.

"There's nothing in the Housing Choice changes that requires anybody to make any zoning amendments," she said during Wednesday's online event.

The state has permitted only 470,000 new housing units since 1990, compared to nearly double that between 1960 and 1990.

Home prices have risen faster in Massachusetts than in any other state since 1980, according to state housing officials. Rents have increased by 75% since 2000, with some communities seeing rental costs double in the past two decades.

"One in four renters are paying 50% or more of their income towards rent," Kennealy said Wednesday. "We have a housing affordability and availability issue that, in our view, is mostly driven by a lack of production."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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