The following op-ed appeared in the Boston Business Journal Feb. 14, 2020.
A problem with the housing crisis is that most homeowners are on the front lines cheering on the rapidly escalating pricing of housing. Today’s owners not only want to see their property grow in value, they do not want to see any initiatives (no matter how well intentioned) that could slow down this growth – for them, that would be a real crisis. This attitude makes any major effort to produce housing challenging, but still necessary.
The Commonwealth is in an enviable position, with the unemployment rate at an all-time low. However, the downside is that employers are now complaining about the lack of locally available, qualified talent. The major reasons for this are two-fold. The steady historic immigration into the region is slowing, due, in part, to our national politics. Secondly, for years, we have had a net domestic out-migration of population, tightening the job market. This latter reason is directly connected to our housing problem. With one of the highest costs of living in the country, workers are being forced to choose affordable living options outside the state. If this trend continues, rather than seeing increasing job growth, we will begin to see job flight. If we wait for this problem to
become a full blown crisis, it will be too late to turn around the trend. We must confront the housing problem as the crisis it is, today.
With all the recent talk about the need for transfer taxes to promote housing, what is being conveniently overlooked are the numerous local zoning obstacles that preclude many municipalities from creating needed housing. One initial effort to affect this problem is the Governor’s housing legislation. Yes, pass this legislation immediately. However, we need to understand that many of the local ordinances and regulations that are in place preclude building the kind of housing we most need. Much of our housing (especially within the greater Boston area) is unaffordable for first time buyers. And that is most true in the communities with top performing school systems. Starter homes are critical to keep those talented workers that are fueling economic growth for so many successful companies. We need to keep them here, rather than lose them to other areas around the country.
Most legislative proposals for zoning reform do little to provide for a real change in housing production, at best providing opt-in incentives. The time is right for bolder action. We could create a new “Comprehensive Starter Home Permit Act”, allowing developers of single family housing to override certain aspects of municipal building permit approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions, so as to address the shortage of affordable starter homes statewide. We should require local zoning by right for some minimum area in every municipality to allow for denser, efficiently-sized single family housing (e.g. 1,700 square foot homes designed for 6-8 units per acre).
There is too much at stake for the economic future of the Commonwealth to allow for overly restrictive home rule policies that continue to strangle our future growth.