Zoning is focus of governor’s housing bill

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Fresh off a town meeting season around the Island where housing was front and center, Beacon Hill is also taking the issue on.

On Tuesday, a Joint Committee on Housing held a public hearing on a bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker that seeks to ease the state’s housing crunch, according to the State House News Service. The bill would allow communities to change zoning bylaws with a simple majority vote, rather than by a two-thirds majority, according to the news service.

Opponents of the bill say the zoning change won’t do enough to address a multifaceted housing crisis, while proponents said it’s a step in the right direction.

“Every year that goes by without enactment of the housing choice bill means that good housing proposals with majority support are defeated because they fail to achieve a two-thirds vote,” Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, was quoted as saying. “If the legislature enacts housing choice and it’s signed into law tomorrow, we will be up here along with many others to advocate for additional measures to zone for additional affordable housing and more multifamily housing across the state. This will not in any sense end that debate.”

Baker first filed the zoning-change bill in 2017, according to the news service. The Housing Committee reported it out favorably in March 2018 with some tweaks, but it languished in the House Ways and Means Committee, and never came up for a vote before the session ended.

Speaking in support of his refiled legislation, Baker said the measures included were “carefully chosen” to help create 135,000 new housing units by 2025. He offered examples from around the state where ostensibly helpful or popular development projects fell short of a two-thirds majority, such as a 130-unit project in Acton that had unanimous planning board and board of selectmen backing, but only received 62 percent of the vote at town meeting.

Massachusetts is one of the only states in the country and the only one in New England requiring such a high vote to make zoning changes, a high bar that Baker said contributed directly to sharp increases in costs of renting and owning a home.