It was hard to miss the juxtaposition this past week of two news items about housing, taken from very different perspectives.
In North Andover, residents continue to mount a campaign to stop AvalonBay Communities from building two, five-story apartment buildings — a total of 250 units — on a 9.4-acre lot off High Street. The town’s Planning Board was studying the proposal last Tuesday, which meant another opportunity for neighbors to voice their fears about aesthetics, the burden of 41 to 47 extra students in local schools, and their certainty that the value of homes adjacent to the project will sink some $100,000.
A couple of days later, Gov. Charlie Baker was the star of an event in his hometown of Swampscott where he announced a state commitment to put $120 million in subsidies and tax credits toward 28 mixed-use projects, including a half-dozen in the North Shore and Merrimack Valley regions. The money will help support the ongoing redevelopment of the old Pacific Mills in Lawrence, for example, as well as the rehab of the Tannery apartments in Peabody.
Baker and others in his administration again described a housing crisis — a potential Achilles heel for an otherwise robust Massachusetts economy built on tech, health care, bioscience and advanced manufacturing. Without more housing, prices and rents will keep rising. That means a strain on household and personal budgets, for those lucky enough to find an affordable place to live. And that turns into pressure on employers to pay higher salaries and wages, inflating the cost of doing business and making the state less competitive.
It’s already happening, to be sure. Just last month, the National Low Income Housing Coalition released a report showing the wage needed to rent the average two-bedroom home in Massachusetts is $33.81 per hour. In only two other states is it higher: California ($34.69 per hour) and Hawaii ($36.82 per hour).
To relieve the pressure, Baker earlier this year set an ambitious target of creating 135,000 new housing units in the state within the next six years. But such big goals cannot be achieved without big ideas and big projects. While nobody envisions two, five-story apartment buildings for the empty lot next to them — and the AvalonBay plan may or may not be right for North Andover — the state can never achieve enough housing without developments of hundreds of apartment and condo units at a time.
One approach to balancing these competing interests — the state’s housing and economic needs against the real concerns of neighborhoods — was modeled by Baker and other members of his administration earlier this week. That is incentivizing projects already in development. The subsidy and tax package announced Tuesday supports 1,581 new units of housing in projects such as the YMCA of the North Shore’s redevelopment of a rooming house in Beverly, the mixed-use Harbor Village project in Gloucester, a 40-unit apartment building planned for Broadway in Methuen, and the redevelopment of the old Machon School in Swampscott into 38 apartments geared toward seniors.
Just as critical is using the broader brush of zoning. Only by rewriting the rules to give bigger proposals a better shot at blooming into real projects will the state ensure that new apartments, condos and single- and multi-family homes are built at a rate that meaningfully addresses housing needs.
Cities and towns can do that. Salem leaders, for example, are thinking of relaxing the requirements for new in-law apartments in the city — a measure that could make it far easier to squeeze single units of housing into the gaps of an already dense city. But more effective are changes at the state level, such as Baker’s proposal before the Legislature to allow local boards to change zoning with a simple majority vote, rather than a two-thirds vote. His previous effort to change the law failed to gain enough momentum to clear Beacon Hill.
Opening the door to more proposals like AvalonBay’s project in North Andover may not be a politically appealing idea. But, as Baker emphasized in a speech to the Beverly Chamber of Commerce before announcing his latest housing initiative this past week, the state is literally running out of room for people to live. “If we don’t get something done on this housing issue,” he said, “we are going to have a hard time building the kind of future we would like to build.”
Our leaders, locally and at the Statehouse, need to act accordingly.