The Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development said Wednesday that mitigation of the state’s housing shortage ultimately is the responsibility of towns and cities.
“We have done the things we think state government can and should do. But every land-use decision is a local vote,” Secretary Mike Kennealy told a regional symposium sponsored by the Middlesex 3 Coalition.
“At the end of the day,” Kennealy continued, “it requires political will at the local level to zone, permit, and produce more housing.”
Wednesday’s program, hosted in Burlington by the venerable real estate giant Nordblom Company, was entitled, “The Suburban Housing Crisis.” Speakers emphasized the connections between adequate housing supply and the health of the economy.
“The degree to which housing and the economy are intertwined is essential,” said Mark Melnik, Ph.D, Director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the Donahue Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Housing production is “still lagging way behind where we need to be.”
Kennealy said the housing shortage has been “a generation in the making.” Since 1990, the state’s housing production is half of the total from the previous 30 years. This simple supply-and-demand situation means Massachusetts is ranked third highest in housing sales costs and rents in the country, he said. State officials say the shortfall is 300,000 units.
The situation “impacts all income levels and all age levels,” and affects the ability to compete for investment and talent, he continued.
Melnik said the Massachusetts population actually declined over the past year, as the “extraordinarily high cost of housing” sparked “domestic migration.” One result is ”we have an impending labor problem in Massachusetts.”
Four other speakers comprised a panel moderated by Bedford Town Manager Sarah Stanton, who remarked as she opened the proceedings that housing is a major issue in the town.
Panelist Robert Buckley, whose professional focus includes land-use planning and mixed-use zoning, cited Bedford as an example of localities that are proactive about housing inventory. “It’s genuine,” he said. “They’re real in their approach.”
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll referenced the “missing middle,” residents who do not qualify for subsidized housing but can’t afford current prices. Often this constituency aligns with “not-in-my-backyard” housing opponents, because “they feel that housing being built isn’t for me.”
Stanton also asked panelists to comment on the state requirement to designate zones for multi-unit housing in cities and towns served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Panelists agreed that the state should make it easy for municipalities to strengthen the infrastructure needed, and also make the penalty for opting out of the requirement more severe. Panelists Todd Nordblom, president of the Nordblom Company, and Chris Chandor, senior vice president, development, with the Davis Companies, agreed that utilities like electricity, natural gas, and water must be regarded as vital to expanded housing. The current proposal removes municipalities from some grant eligibility for non-compliance.
Chandor also noted the issue of finding suitable sites for new residential development, particularly when some life-sciences facilities are competing for the same space. “There are really a lot of challenges we are facing,” he said.
Driscoll, who is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, said housing availability is “very much a moral issue.” Localities need to “engage in discussions about the need for housing as a community mission.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763