Urban planner: Solving housing crisis will take a mix of construction, policymaking

Metropolitan Area Planning Council Executive Director Marc Draisen speaks about the housing crisis.

SALEM — For close to 20 years, Marc Draisen has led regional planning and zoning discussions to help strengthen the North Shore through the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.

But what the organization's executive director saw Thursday night with Salem's City Council represents what he called "a very, very disappointing night in Salem."

He wasn't alone. On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Swampscott Republican, mentioned Salem during a press conference on the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, which many say has further magnified the housing crisis. He called Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll "my good friend."

"She has an 11-member City Council, which means any housing project she wants to move forward has to get an 8 to 3 vote out of that City Council," Baker said. "Somewhere between five and 10 times, she's gone before the City Council with a variety of projects at every level of housing — senior housing, affordable housing, workforce housing, ancillary dwelling housing... I mean, almost everything you can think of that would be a part of trying to create more housing opportunities, more affordable options for people in Salem, and she inevitably gets a 7-to-4 vote."

That's what happened Thursday night, when two measures aimed at creating housing options in Salem were either tabled or sent back to committee because they didn't have the two-thirds majority needed — eight votes — to pass.

"It's truly shameful," said Draisen, "that a tiny number of people are able to prevent the city of Salem from adopting the progressive and meaningful policies that address the housing crisis." 

Changing 'Choice'

Lawmakers have tried to make changes at the state level. Housing Choice, part of the proposed Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth, aims to allow communities to make zoning changes by simple majority vote. Baker talked about the bill in Salem in early March, before COVID-19 decimated the region.

"Eight to three is tough; seven to four is not enough; six to five is not enough," Baker said at the time, standing at a podium in downtown Salem with Driscoll nearby. "Thousands of units don't get built in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, even though they have majority support of whatever their governing body is."

Being said, there is still a portion of the state that backs the supermajority zoning rule. Those who do often argue that zoning changes can have powerful impacts on a community over time, so the changes should have overwhelming consensus if they're truly serving a public need.

In the meantime, the lack of housing inventory creates unmanageable and toxic vacancy rates. A healthy community will have about 5% of its homes vacant, Draisen said, while many places are stuck at 1 to 2%.

"When you have that kind of vacancy rate, prices skyrocket," Draisen said. "Rents, the cost for a condo, the cost for a single-family home, they all go up when there isn't a healthy vacancy rate. So for all these reasons, we need to build more."

Affordability is a must

Simply building more homes won't resolve the housing crisis — luxury housing units, as some councilors in Salem frequently say, don't accomplish much. Many need to be affordable as well to support the lifeblood of a community — restaurant staff, health care workers, teachers and more.

"Sometimes, people think 'affordable housing' means very, very poor people that don't work, and to some degree it does," Draisen said. "But honestly, most of the affordable housing we create now, most of the affordable units (North Shore Community Development Coalition Executive Director) Mickey Northcutt creates, are for working-class families that get up, go to a job every day — and that isn't enough."

Affordable housing, Northcutt said Thursday, is "one of the main issues of our times in Massachusetts." 

"If you're working 50 hours a week at minimum wage, you're going to be earning less than $30,000 a year, and if you throw a child in that situation... who among us could find a reasonable, two-bedroom apartment earning $25,000 a year?" Northcutt said. "That isn't an exception. There are so many people in our community who are living on that or less, and their housing options are crisis-level difficult."

Draisen agrees.

"If you try to approach this issue only through supply," he said, "it's like approaching it with one hand tied behind your back."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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