Affordable housing is key to sustaining state’s economic growth

By Secretary Mike Kennealy

The commonwealth of Massachusetts is consistently ranked as one of the best educated states in the country, with one of the strongest economies, and families and businesses alike see Massachusetts as the ideal place to grow.

However, despite this success, Massachusetts continues to climb the ranks on another national list: the cost of rental housing.

According to a National Low Income Housing Coalition report released in June, Massachusetts has jumped New York and Washington D.C. to become the third most expensive state in the country for rental housing.

Since becoming secretary of housing and economic development in December, I have witnessed the impact of these trends on families and business owners that I have met across the commonwealth. There is simply not enough housing in Massachusetts, and this is one of the greatest threats to sustaining our economic momentum.

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have traveled to 25 state-supported housing developments in 17 communities across the commonwealth alongside legislators, municipal leaders and advocates to see their work first-hand and understand how we can do more. We called the tour #15k4ma to highlight the Baker-Polito administration’s support for the production and preservation of over 15,000 affordable units throughout Massachusetts since taking office in 2015.

In the midst of the tour, I joined Governor Charlie Baker to further the administration’s commitment to affordable housing with the 2019 Affordable Rental Housing Awards, which will support the production and preservation of more than 1,500 additional units statewide, 1,349 of them affordable.

Meeting with residents and developers while surveying our housing investments in person, I gained invaluable insight on the state of affordable housing in Massachusetts, and what we can do to better support it.

It was clear that developers and advocates are reimagining their approach to affordable housing in Massachusetts, emphasizing community building over merely providing shelter.

Along the Merrimack River, long abandoned factories are coming back to life, driving development downtown as they did in decades past and building on the rich industrial heritage of cities like Lawrence and Haverhill.

Over the last 12 years, our Department of Housing and Community Development has used the Housing Development Incentive Program as well as other key resources to produce more than 700 units of transit-oriented, mixed-income rental housing in downtown Haverhill alone, many of them affordable.

For example, the Ellis Factory in Haverhill was recently renovated by Chinburg Properties from a former shoe factory into 58 market rate apartments and 5,000 square feet of commercial space downtown.

In Lawrence, the 500,000 square foot, six-story Upper Pacific Worsted Mill №10 stood vacant for decades, a relic from the city’s proud past as one of the world’s leading textile producers.

Today, that same property is being transformed by Reed Community Partners into 276 units in the North Canal Historic District, breathing new life into the building and the neighborhood.

Municipal support for affordable housing was evident throughout the tour, and it came through loud and clear in these cities, thanks to the leadership of Mayors Dan Rivera and James Fiorentini.

There was an overarching theme I heard on the #15k4ma tour: many communities and partners want to develop more affordable housing in Massachusetts.

For-profit and nonprofit developers, including community development corporations and firms from as far away as Oregon, told me they were drawn to develop in Massachusetts by the collaborative, innovative leadership shown by our private and public sectors to make the economics of affordability work.

This administration remains committed to investing in the commonwealth’s affordable housing ecosystem. However, subsidies alone will never produce the 135,000 new units by 2025 that Gov. Baker has called for.

We must modernize a century-old law, which requires a 67 percent supermajority local vote to change local zoning pertaining to housing. Across Massachusetts we have seen projects win resounding majorities in city councils and town meetings, only to fail under the current thresholds.

To address this issue, Gov. Baker has filed An Act Relative to Housing Choices.

Housing Choice would lower this zoning threshold to a simple majority, making it easier for communities across the commonwealth to adopt housing best practices to help drive the expansion of the housing stock at all income levels.

Each day that passes is another day lost to get shovels in the ground and produce the housing necessary for a growing population facing short supply. Without this necessary legislative reform, too many families –- a growing number of whom pay 30 percent or more of their income on housing — will continue to live under the current status quo, without relief in sight.

We will continue to fund and advocate for affordable housing in Massachusetts, but we need to act now. I urge the Legislature to pass our Housing Choice legislation so that our already thriving commonwealth can continue to grow.

Mike Kennealy is the Massachusetts secretary for housing and economic development.

This op/ed originally appeared in the Eagle Tribune on August 23, 2019. Versions of this column also appeared in the Cape Cod Times, Telegram & Gazette, Taunton Daily Gazette, and The Herald News.

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development promotes vibrant communities, growing businesses, and a strong middle class.

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