The day will come when we look back at the current condition of the Massachusetts economy with wonder. The high tech and life sciences industries are booming. So too advanced manufacturing and health care. The unemployment rate is below 3%, which means pretty much anyone who wants a job and can physically work is employed.
In Lawrence and Haverhill, mayors point to old factories that were once reminders of industries and jobs long gone, and they point with pride. The reason is that it’s next-to-impossible to find a vacant mill or shoe factory in those cities anymore, since nearly all the space has been filled with start-up businesses, offices and commercial space, or condos and apartments.
In nearby North Andover, an underused factory that was once a regional economic magnet, when it was occupied by Western Electric, will soon roar back to life as a five-story, 3.8 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center.
From Amesbury to Gloucester to Beverly, the region is buzzing with new investments, new jobs and new opportunity.
There are strains, to be sure, such as those living on modest means who struggle just to get to work, and others who are not working to their potential. But, by and large, this economy would be the envy of people living in different places or times. One wonders when, and why, it will ever slow.
Well, one reason comes to mind, and it’s largely of our own making, or really our lack of making. And that is a scarcity of reasonably priced housing.
The thin housing supply isn’t just a burden on those living with fixed incomes or low incomes, although their strain is severe. It’s also a problem for recent college graduates, young families and the middle class. Prices are growing at a steady clip. “The housing crisis has moved into the middle class and is creeping up beyond the middle class,” state Rep. Nika Elugardo, D-Boston, said at a rally last fall for a bill giving more protection to renters, according to State House News Service. “Now that ‘everyday people’ are experiencing the pain of the housing crisis, people are beginning to question how we do business around here.”
Also in question is how far this will go. Without more room in the market for workers, the state’s and region’s economies will lose their shine. Companies won’t grow here or move here -- because they can’t. A housing shortage truly could be the spoiler that curbs this economy’s growth.
State leaders understand this potential problem. It’s much of the reason for the Baker administration’s persistence in trying to change housing laws that would make projects easier to permit, and it’s the reason that the Legislature’s inability to give life to that plan is so frustrating.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito issued a “call to action” on housing when she spoke to the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce on Friday morning. She was encouraging city and town leaders and the business community to work on this problem — though, she acknowledged, many in the room already are. To be sure, her message also should be delivered to the Legislature. There may not be one fix for the state’s housing problems, but there are some basic ones ready to be implemented. Take one topic of the housing bill -- a legal requirement that two-thirds of a city council or town meeting must vote to adopt a zoning change. Dialing that back to a simple majority vote would clear the way for less restrictive zoning measures and more projects. It would, as Polito told the business group, give communities the ability to control their own destiny.
“This will free up and allow more projects to be permitted,” she said. “And permitted projects get constructed.”
The barrier now standing in the way is clearly visible in Salem. Separate proposals there to allow redevelopment of a former school and to grant property owners the right to build in-law apartments failed with only majority votes from the City Council — but not the super-majorities needed to pass. Mayor Kim Driscoll called the Sisyphean effort of trying to push through a zoning change “soul sucking.” It shouldn’t be this way. It can’t be if we really want more housing.
Plenty of people will acknowledge the importance of this issue, only to resist a development planned for their neighborhood. It’s undoubtedly part of the reason why the Baker administration’s most recent housing plan, a needed lever toward the governor’s stated goal of creating 427,000 new housing units in the state over the next two decades, spent all of last year languishing in a Legislative committee.
But it’s well past time to clear away those hurdles, not just in the interest of making it easier for communities to allow growth, but also to prevent a restrictive housing market from being the leg that topples beneath the booming Massachusetts economy.