Zoning Reform Not Enough, Massachusetts Tenants Say

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s bill to increase housing production by making it easier for local governments to change zoning has drawn sharp criticism from tenant advocates, who say it would do nothing to solve the state’s affordable-housing crisis.

Baker’s proposed legislation would change state law to let cities and towns modify zoning with a simple majority vote by their governing body, instead of a two-thirds majority. He argues that preventing a minority from blocking new development will increase the housing supply in a state where the number of units produced each year has fallen from more than 30,000 in the 1970s to less than 13,500, according to the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations.

“There are communities that have just been zeroed out by developers as not possible,” the governor told a state House hearing May 14. “They don’t even try.”

But for tenant advocates, there are two key words missing from Baker’s concept: “affordable” and “displacement.” “Let’s be specific: We have a displacement crisis and an affordable housing crisis,” Darnell Johnson of Homes For All Massachusetts, a coalition of more than 25 housing and community groups that protested at the May 14 hearing, said in a statement. “Calling it a ‘housing crisis’ obscures the underlying issue and leads us to think that building more housing— even vast amounts of market-rate, luxury housing—is the solution.”

Homes For All also said that without guarantees of affordability, the bill “could actually worsen the crisis by helping to usher in a new wave of luxury developments that will intensify gentrification and lead to displacement.” In Lynn, the group noted, plans for three large new projects would create 2,000 new units, a gated community, “and not a single affordable apartment.”

The coalition says zoning reform “could be one part of a strong response to the housing crisis if it is genuinely aligned with concerns for social, economic, and racial justice, and if it is coupled with measures that ensure affordability, promote fair housing, prevent displacement, and enable municipalities to take action.”

Those measures, it said, would include “real affordability requirements” for new projects, support for alternative housing models such as community land trusts and limited-equity co-ops, and changing the 1994 state law that prohibits cities and towns from enacting rent control and “just cause” eviction protections.