Introducing five amendments to make the Governor's Housing Choice proposal more equitable

JULY 26, 2020

Tomorrow, the Massachusetts House will consider the Governor's Housing Choice proposal as part of H.4879, An Act enabling partnerships for growth, a.k.a. the Economic Development bill.

I am generally supportive of the basic concept behind the Governor’s Housing Choice proposal, which would lower the municipal voting threshold for certain zoning changes from a two-thirds majority vote to a simple-majority vote. As a representative of Cambridge and Somerville, I am proud that our communities support new housing production, and I recognize this proposal can help push other communities to join us in doing their part, particularly those suburban communities that are often resistant to new, multifamily housing (despite the fact that most suburban communities are served by the MBTA or other regional transit routes). It should also be noted that most states only require simple majorities to change zoning.

That said, I have also been very clear that if the Governor’s Housing Choice proposal is included in the Economic Development bill, then additional equity provisions should be included as well. We cannot simply rely on market-oriented, neoliberal strategies if we hope to make progress in the face of the ongoing housing emergency. Simple-majority approval could help us get more of the housing we need, if more attention is paid to affordability and anti-displacement concerns. That's why I have stood up and spoken out against previous efforts to pass the Governor's bill when there was no opportunity for amendments or debate.

In order to bring justice and equity to the Governor's Housing Choice proposal, I have introduced the following five amendments:

  • Amendment #34  "Supporting Affordable Housing With A Local Option For A fee To Be Applied To Certain Real Estate Transactions" — based on the text of H.1769, which would provide cities and towns with the option of creating their own real estate transfer fees to fund local affordable housing projects. The municipality would have complete control to exempt any kinds of transactions where it is felt a transfer fee should not be applied (transactions of less than $1 million or transactions involving seniors could be exempted, for example). All of the proceeds raised by the fee would remain with the municipality to fund its own affordable housing programs. This bill has been reported on favorably by the Joint Committee on Municipalities in each of the past two legislative sessions.
  • Amendment #66  "Enabling Local Options For Tenant Protections" — based on the text of H.3924, the Tenant Protection Act, filed by myself and Rep. Nika Elugardo. This would repeal M.G.L. Chapter 40P and lift the statewide ban on rent control, making it possible for cities and towns to bring everyone to the table (that means tenants, homeowners, and landlords alike) to craft protections that make sense on the local level. This bill was reported on favorably by the Joint Committee on Housing on June 4, 2020.
  • Amendment #124 — "Facilitating Local Approval of Inclusionary Zoning" — based on the text of H.3883, which would address a serious inequity in the Governor's Housing Choice proposal. As it stands, Housing Choice will empower a municipality to approve zoning for new, multifamily housing developments by a simple majority vote. However, if a municipality wishes to implement an Inclusionary Zoning policy to require that a certain percentage of new housing units be set aside as affordable, that affordability ordinance would actually require a separate vote by a two-thirds majority. Such a disparity in zoning approval standards is inherently inequitable, so this amendment clarifies that Inclusionary Zoning proposals can also be approved by a simple majority vote. This bill was reported on favorably by the Joint Committee on Municipalities on January 21, 2020
  • Amendment #135 — "Enabling a Local Option for a Tax on Vacant Units in Large Residential Buildings" — based on the text of H.3889, which would provide cities and towns with the option of taxing unoccupied units in buildings with ten or more housing units. Many apartments in the Greater Boston area are currently being used as investment properties, sitting mostly unoccupied. But if housing sits vacant, it doesn't do anything to help address the ongoing emergency. Vancouver recently implemented a tax on vacant units, and they saw a 15% decrease in vacant homes from 2017 to 2018. Units would have to sit vacant for at least 90 days before the local option vacancy tax could begin to apply, and units undergoing reconstruction would be exempt. All of the proceeds from the vacancy tax would be retained by the municipality for its own affordable housing programs.
  • Amendment #439 — "Guaranteeing Housing Stability During the COVID-19 Emergency and Recovery" — based on the text of H.4878 (a.k.a. HD.5166), the COVID-19 Housing Stability Act, filed by myself and Housing Chair Kevin Honan. This proposal would help prevent the "tsunami of evictions" that is expected when the current Eviction and Foreclosure Moratorium Law expires on October 17 by offering protections to COVID-impacted tenants for the duration of the COVID-19 State of Emergency and for one year afterward. It also includes housing stability measures, extended foreclosure protections, extended and expanded mortgage forbearance for homeowners landlords with up to 15 units of housing, and Housing Court jurisdiction to help facilitate arrangements for any missed rent or mortgage payments. This bill has a total of 89 legislative co-sponsors and has been endorsed by over 200 advocacy groups, labor unions, and faith-based organizations. 

This afternoon, I reached out to all of my House colleagues to ask for their support with these five amendments. Representatives can use the Quill function in LAWS to co-sponsor any and all of these amendments up until the point at which the amendment is considered in tomorrow's debate.

At the June 26 hearing on the Economic Development bill, Jessicah Pierre of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA) was invited by the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies to offer her opinion on the Governor's Housing Choice proposal — but she didn't comment on it directly. Rather, she said we should follow the lead of City Life/Vida Urbana and housing justice advocates who have been pushing for comprehensive housing legislation for years.

Indeed, over the course of the 2019-20 legislative term, Black-led and People of Color-led housing justice organizations have made it very clear that consideration of the Governor's Housing Choice proposal must also come with affordability measures and strong tenant protections. Grassroots groups like City Life/Vida Urbana, the Chelsea Collaborative, the Chinese Progressive Association, Lynn United for Change, Reclaim Roxbury, Springfield No One Leaves, and many others have testified that the Housing Choice proposal "could worsen the crisis by helping to usher in a new wave of luxury development that will intensify gentrification and lead to displacement."

And yet, there is room for partnership and common ground on this Housing Choice proposal. These housing justice organizations go on to say: "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, prevent displacement, and enable municipalities to take action. It would be a betrayal of our communities to pass the governor's bill without substantive amendments and without these companion measures..."

I agree with this sentiment, and with the five amendments I have introduced above — along with nine additional amendments that I am also supporting, as outlined below — we now have an unprecedented opportunity to make the Governor's Housing Choice proposal more equitable for all of communities.

Here are nine additional amendments, eight of which are introduced by my House colleagues and one is a local option that I have introduced, that will help advance the goal of a comprehensive, equitable response to the ongoing housing emergency:

  • Amendment #63 — "Authorizing the City of Somerville to enact right to purchase legislation" — filed by Reps. Provost co-sponsored by myself and Rep. Barber.
  • Amendment #68 — "Authorizing the City Of Somerville To Impose A Real Estate Transfer Fee" — filed by myself and Rep. Provost and co-sponsored by Rep. Barber.
  • Amendment #82 — "Tenant right to counsel pilot program" — filed by Rep. Santiago and co-sponsored by myself and others
  • Amendment #194 — "ID access for people experiencing homelessness" — filed by Rep. O'Day and co-sponsored by myself and others.
  • Amendment #269 — "Tenant right of first refusal" — filed by Rep. Cullinane and co-sponsored by myself and otherss, provides tenants with the opportunity to purchase their buildings.
  • Amendment #280 — "Providing a Bill of Rights for People Experiencing Homelessness" — filed by Rep. Pignatelli and co-sponsored by myself and others.
  • Amendment #290 — "Compromise local option transfer fee on high cost home sales to support low and middle income housing" — filed by Rep. Fernandes and co-sponsored by myself and others as part of our real estate transfer fee coalition effort.
  • Amendment #408 — "Public Housing Expansion" — filed by Rep. Elugardo and co-sponsored by myself and others.
  • Amendment #449 — "Eviction Sealing" — filed by Rep. Mike Moran and co-sponsored by myself and others, the HOMES Act.

Cambridge and Somerville constituents are always welcome to reach out to me directly with any questions on concerns on this or any other matter. Other folks are encouraged to ask their Representatives to co-sponsor all ten of these amendments. Here's hoping that tomorrow ends up being a big step forward for housing justice in our Commonwealth!