Baker outlines plan for 135,000 new housing units by 2025

Aiming for the construction of 135,000 new housing units by 2025, the Baker administration on Monday heralded $10 million in incentives to encourage cities and towns to promote development within their borders.

Gov. Charlie Baker also proposed legislation that would make it easier for municipalities to change their zoning to promote multifamily developments, reduce their parking requirements, and make other changes to smooth the way for more housing.

The initiatives are modeled on the Green Communities program that rewards cities and towns for taking climate-friendly steps.

Communities that qualify will be able to access capital grants, receive preferential treatment for existing grant programs – including MassWorks and transportation grants – and access $2 million in MassHousing technical assistance grants to help them make progress towards affordable housing goals.

The governor's bill dubbed An Act to Promote Housing Choices would allow cities and towns adopt certain zoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than the existing requirement of a two-thirds vote. The administration on Monday also announced about $1.3 million in grant funding for 37 projects through the Planning Assistance Grant Program, which encourages land conservation, reduced energy consumption and the housing production.

The policy package was crafted to address the boiling hot Bay State housing market, where home prices have risen faster than any other state in the country and Boston rent prices "rank among the highest in the country," according to the administration.

While high housing prices can benefit sellers and landlords, they also force homebuyers and renters to make difficult financial and lifestyle decisions.

"Our growing economy demands a robust and diverse supply of housing to support the Commonwealth’s continued growth and success," Baker said in a statement. "This initiative will maximize collaboration between state agencies, support innovation and data-driven policies, and provide municipalities with the user-friendly tools needed to create more housing where it’s needed. We look forward to working with the legislature and partnering with cities and towns to deliver much needed housing to regions across Massachusetts, while respecting our long-standing home rule tradition."

The governor plans to speak about the Housing Choice Initiative in Roxbury Monday afternoon alongside Assistant Secretary of Housing and Community Development Chrystal Kornegay, Littleton Town Administrator Keith Bergman and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

Curtatone is "thrilled" with the new program, he said in a statement, and Littleton's town administrator touted the town's inventory of subsidized housing, which at 12.9 percent exceeds the 10 percent goal under a state law known as 40B.

"Littleton has a strong housing market and its total housing stock has increased by 10 percent since 2010," Bergman said in a statement.

Prior to its formal announcement, the initiative received praise from a bevy of outside organization, including NAIOP the Commercial Real Estate Development Association of Massachusetts, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

"Community leaders need resources, tools, incentives and flexibility, and they also need to preserve their decision-making authority, because there are no one-size-fits-all solutions," said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the municipal association. "We applaud the Governor's Housing Choice Program, because he is standing with cities and towns, and offering resources and tools that are necessary to make real progress together."

Metropolitan Area Planning Council Executive Director Marc Draisen, who supports policies that foster denser residential development, said he was pleased that the administration will grant Housing Choice communities "specific advantages" in grant applications.

"I think these kinds of programs often work if the incentives are significant," Draisen told the News Service. He estimated that about 50 municipalities would qualify today under the program.

"Housing Choice will encourage communities to build more of the homes that we need in walkable and welcoming places," said André Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and spokesman for the Great Neighborhoods campaign. "We are very pleased that the Baker-Polito Administration recognizes the fundamental role that zoning reform plays in solving our housing crisis."

Communities would need to demonstrate recent housing production or a combination of housing production and development-friendly policies to qualify, according to Draisen, who said there would be different standards for rural communities. The Housing Choice Designation is "designed to be simple, flexible and achievable for municipalities," according to the administration.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a former building trades union official who years ago set a goal of 53,000 new housing units in his city by 2030, said the Baker administration's initiative would help Boston and other places around the state.

"Together with the support of the Commonwealth through the new Housing Choice Initiative, cities and towns, including Boston, will have a new set of tools at our disposal to continue delivering more housing for the people we serve," Walsh said in a statement.