Mass. economy is at risk, four economic development chiefs say

By Ranch Kimball, Dan O’Connell, Greg Bialecki and Jay Ash

Massachusetts is in a housing crisis.

The rising cost of living from increased housing prices is creating a substantial gap in affordable housing stock for cities and towns struggling to meet demand.

As renters struggle with paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent and as potential homeowners deal with single-family home prices that have increased faster than any other state, the progress Massachusetts has made in economic growth and development is at risk.

Across the commonwealth, communities are faced with this concerning and very tangible reality, and this trend should concern all residents with a stake in the future of Massachusetts. A lack of viable housing options gives rise to a major burden, not just for working families, but for their employers as well.

Without adequate housing available to the workforce, established companies will eventually be unable to grow in Massachusetts, while others will reconsider doing business here altogether.

As four former cabinet secretaries charged with strengthening and preparing Massachusetts’ economy for the future, we each recognize the dire condition of the housing market and the potential consequences the Commonwealth will be met with if an essential, bipartisan initiative like the Baker-Polito Administration’s Housing Choice legislation is not enacted.

Consequently, we have joined forces as former cabinet secretaries for the Romney, Patrick and Baker Administrations to make the case for taking action to rewrite the rules before it is too late for Massachusetts.

Since Ranch Kimball, the first of us to serve as Secretary of Economic Development, began his tenure in the Romney Administration following a recession in the early 2000’s, Massachusetts’ economy has boomed. The region has since solidified its status as a global innovation epicenter, while consistent support for the Commonwealth’s world-class public and private educational systems is driving the growth of innovation and industry across the state.

We are all proud of the growth Massachusetts has achieved toward becoming a great place to live, work and do business. However, we are equally troubled by the contrasting stagnation when it comes to ensuring residents have adequate, affordable options for housing.

Despite the dedicated efforts of state executives, legislators, activists and stakeholders, the housing situation has only worsened over the last few decades, threatening Massachusetts’ success.

Annual production of new units has fallen to levels less than half of those seen during the 1970s, causing rents to skyrocket and options to dwindle throughout the Commonwealth.

Currently being considered by the Legislature, An Act to Promote Housing Choices represents our best shot yet to resolve this crisis before workers, families and businesses abandon Massachusetts altogether.

The bill would preserve a community’s local approval of housing production and would simply lower the voting threshold required to change zoning from two-thirds to one-half approval of the community’s governing body, without mandating production. In any democracy, a majority should be able to determine the future of their community.

This bill is not a panacea, and additional solutions are worth discussing as Massachusetts seeks to dig its way out of the current shortage. After failing for decades to make headway, the Legislature must pass this bill that addresses this monumental barrier. Too many families continue to struggle due to inaction driven by fear of change or the search for a silver bullet.

During our time as secretaries, we each represented a wide range of perspectives and political affiliations across three different administrations. Nonetheless, we share an appreciation for the depth of this crisis, and the structural factors underlying its permeation throughout the commonwealth.

Every day that passes without a solution is a missed opportunity for communities in need of the housing projects and initiatives that would be made possible by Governor Baker’s Housing Choice legislation.

We wholeheartedly endorse An Act to Promote Housing Choices, and are grateful for the Baker-Polito administration’s leadership on this issue. We urge you to call on your legislators to support this necessary step in ensuring Massachusetts remains a great place to live and work for all.

Jay Ash, served as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development during the first term of the Baker-Polito Administration from 2015–2018 and is now CEO of Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Greg Bialecki, served as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development in the Patrick Administration from 2009–2015 and is now Principal of Redgate Capital Partners.

Dan O’Connell, served as Secretary of Housing and Economic Development in the Patrick Administration from 2007–2009 and is the former CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Ranch Kimball, served as Secretary of Economic Development in the Romney Administration from 2004–2007 and is a former partner at Boston Consulting Group who serves on the boards of numerous philanthropic, educational and civic organizations.

This op/ed originally appeared in the Boston Business Journal on September 3, 2019.

Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development

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

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