The prospect of an online retailer moving into Osgood Landing is major news not just for North Andover but the entire region. The sprawling complex off Route 125 that was last a Lucent Technologies plant has been underused, if not unused, for more than a decade. Now, it could become a warehousing and shipping hub that, a Dallas real estate developer told selectmen last week, employs 1,500 people.
That’s welcome news but inevitably leads to a nagging question about the region’s economic picture: If many of those 1,500 workers move to the Merrimack Valley from elsewhere, how much will they make and where will they live? New condos and apartments are coming online, to be sure, but at nowhere near the rate needed to keep prices affordable.
Housing is a key piece of the formula for a strong economy, as are education, technology and industrial growth. But in the Merrimack Valley, on the North Shore and really throughout much of Massachusetts, its limited supply is a spoiler that will limit just how much the economy can grow and what kind of jobs will be available.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s visit to the region last week — he spoke at a press conference in Lawrence on Thursday, then attended an event at Notch Brewery in Salem on Friday — wasn’t expressly related to what’s happening at Osgood Landing, but in some ways it has everything to do with it.
Baker is making good on a vow last fall to renew his focus on expanding the supply of affordable housing in the state, made after a proposal to change zoning rules to encourage the development of multifamily housing died on Beacon Hill. Some political leaders create yardsticks for themselves that measure job growth or tax cuts or carbon emissions. Baker has said he wants to add 135,000 housing units to the state within the next 16 years. To put that into some perspective, it approaches building half the housing stock of Essex County.
In appearances last week — and a column co-authored with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, published in this newspaper last Thursday — Baker described another specific change to zoning rules that has the potential to make a real difference. Rather than the two-thirds approval of a city council or town meeting now needed to change local zoning, resetting the bar at a simple majority would kick loose projects that get bogged down in the planning and approvals stages. In their column, Baker and Driscoll noted that Massachusetts is one of only a few states with such a high bar for zoning changes, and the only one in New England.
It’s important to note that Baker doesn’t suggest taking away the authority of a city or town to influence development within its borders. Changing local zoning, as it relates to density or parking or lot size, would still require the approval of a local board. Instead, this idea long supported by housing advocates would remove the ability of a determined minority to hold up a project that a majority supports. Changing that requirement — a central piece of Baker’s Housing Choice initiative — is the “only viable option to enable the amount of housing production necessary to address the growing shortage,” he and Driscoll wrote.
In other words, the state can set aside money to goose affordable housing projects, as it has. Communities like Lawrence can encourage developers to breathe new life into old mill buildings to create lofts, condos and apartments marketed at rates affordable to average income families — as they have.
But none of these approaches alone can have a sweeping enough impact to change the housing supply to match the needs of our economy. Doing that requires a long look at the laws and rules around development.
Just like preparing the soil of a field, making our state and region attractive for jobs and economic growth, whether at Osgood Landing in North Andover or Centennial Park in Peabody or Blackburn Industrial Park in Gloucester, means creating conditions that will support that growth. Those conditions include trained workers, infrastructure and housing.
Without immediate attention — and moves like the one advanced by Baker to meaningfully expand the housing supply — the economic activity that has until now been a jewel of the North Shore and Merrimack Valley will move elsewhere.