We talk to Chris Kluchman, director of Massachusetts’ Housing Choice Initiative, about the Commonwealth’s multifaceted approach
While working for Westford, Massachusetts, for 6 years, first as a town planner and then later as director of land use management, Chris Kluchman saw firsthand the housing affordability and access issues her state faces. Now, as the inaugural director of Massachusetts’ Housing Choice Initiative, a statewide program launched by Governor Charlie Baker, she is addressing residents’ rising housing concerns head-on. The three-part initiative combines incentives, technical assistance and a legislative proposal to support the production of 135,000 new housing units by 2025, while also continuing to explore other methods in meetings with community leaders and stakeholders across the Commonwealth.
We Are Apartments spoke with Kluchman to learn more about the program and what it has accomplished so far.
We Are Apartments: How did this initiative come to be?
Chris Kluchman: Massachusetts is in the midst of a housing crisis. Housing costs continue to increase for renters and home sale prices have hit new records. Massachusetts’ housing production in the last few decades has not kept up with our population, creating a gap between supply and demand in the housing market.
“Making sure we have housing our families and residents can afford is critical to the long-term stability of our Commonwealth.”
Governor Charlie Baker made housing a top priority for his administration and challenged his team to bring together stakeholders and policy experts to pinpoint obstacles and put forward solutions. After months of meetings, outreach efforts and conversations, Governor Baker released our Housing Choice Initiative in December 2017.
The bottom line is that we need much, much more housing production to put a dent in our need. Making sure we have housing our families and residents can afford is critical to the long-term stability of our Commonwealth. For employers, it’s crucial they can attract a talented workforce. And keeping housing costs down helps improve the quality of life for families and individuals, ensuring they can afford to stay in their homes and increase their own economic prosperity. Everyone deserves housing they can afford, so they can live, work and thrive in their community.
We Are Apartments: How did Massachusetts make sure the Housing Choice Initiative was addressing the obstacles that developers as well as families were facing?
Kluchman: One of the main obstacles to substantial production is communities’ inability to adopt housing best practices in their local zoning. In Massachusetts, changes to local zoning require a vote by two-thirds of the local legislative body. This 67% voting threshold has impeded communities where a majority vote to approve a smart-growth zoning, denser housing or transit-oriented amendment exists, but the amendment fails because there’s no “supermajority.”
“By streamlining the process, we can improve access to more housing options for families and lower costs for developers.”
Our initiative removes barriers to improve land use and new housing by promoting the adoption of local zoning best practices and allowing cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices by a simple majority vote. Massachusetts is currently one of very few states to require a supermajority to change local zoning; all other northeastern states rezone through simple majority votes.
By lowering the threshold to pass zoning changes, this initiative makes it easier for local governments to adopt zoning that accommodates housing that their families and residents need. The eight zoning best practices in our legislation are aimed at allowing people to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to their properties, denser housing development and transit-oriented development. By streamlining the process, we can improve access to more housing options for families and lower costs for developers.
We Are Apartments: What has the Housing Choice Initiative accomplished so far?
Kluchman: We’ve designated 79 Housing Choice Communities, recognizing their commitment to housing production and housing best practices and making them eligible for new capital grants. To date, we’ve awarded $5 million in capital grant funding to 31 communities. And through our partnership with the quasi-public agency MassHousing, 15 municipalities have access to technical assistance to advance new housing production.
I also serve as a single point of contact for municipalities and housing developers for information about grants and technical assistance related to housing and planning for housing. And a group of state agencies meets once a quarter to make sure we’re coordinating state resources to help local governments understand and adopt zoning best practices.
We Are Apartments: What other steps is Massachusetts taking to make housing affordable and accessible for all its residents?
Kluchman: The Baker-Polito Administration has already made historic investments in affordable housing, education and transportation, all of which are critical to enhancing quality of life and potential for our residents. Since 2015, the administration has invested more than $1 billion in affordable housing, resulting in the production and preservation of more than 17,000 housing units, including 15,000 affordable units. Moving forward, we will continue to invest in more affordable housing, including housing for extremely low-income communities. We’re also working with communities to help plan for the needs of residents, and we’re partnering with our colleagues in the legislature to pursue a variety of strategies, like increasing funding for housing vouchers.