How Massachusetts Got its Historic Planning Reform Moment

As reported earlier this month, the Massachusetts Legislature is poised to approve historic statewide land use reforms that would preempt local control of residential development. Here's a detailed account of how the state arrived at this moment.

August 21, 2020, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Boston, Massachusetts

Alexandrina Phoenix / Shutterstock

"Massachusetts is expected to soon pass a bill that will include a housing choice provision that can help cities and suburbs build housing and end exclusionary zoning," according to an article by Randy Shaw, picking up on news shared on Planetizen earlier this month. The new legislation is the third iteration of the "Housing Choice" first proposed by Governor Charlie Baker in 2017. "Housing advocates have fought hard for the measure, which enables city councils to pass rezoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds supermajority vote," explains Shaw.

The bill approved by the Massachusetts Senate in July, titled An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth, includes housing choice provisions, according to Shaw, and advocates believe the bill is close enough to the House version of the bill that passage is all but assured, although approval might wait until September. In the meantime, Shaw mines the experience of getting this historic legislation to the finish line for lessons that can be applied nationally.

With more details included in the source article, Shaw offers these three lessons:

  1. Voters are pro-housing. Compare this to the recent political machinations of the Trump administration, which is pinning its electoral strategy on messages designed to provoke fear about the potential of liberal housing policies to change suburban communities.
  2. Activists must end state barriers. Shaw gives credit to the advocacy organizations that have spurred the legislation in Massachusetts, while also crediting predecessor legislation in Oregon, California, New York, and Connecticut. More action should follow, according o Shaw. "State laws in Colorado, Illinois, Texas, Washington, and other states block cities from enacting essential affordability measures. The passage of housing choice legislation should encourage activists to keep battling at the state level to win real change."
  3. Governor support is ket to passing housing choice. Compare the experience of Massachusetts, with support from Governor Baker, to the history of failed up zoning bills in California, which failed at the finish line without support from Governor Gavin Newsom. "New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also fails to walk the talk on housing. You’d never think that he was a great former HUD secretary after his failure to prioritize new housing production as governor," writes Shaw.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020 in Shelterforce Magazine

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