Housing Secretary Tells Chamber Crowd That MBTA Communities Act is Key to a Strong Economy

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Ed Augustus, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing & Livable Communities, spoke at the Charles River Regional Chamber’s Spring Business Breakfast. (Courtesy of Charles River Chamber)

NEEDHAM — Building more housing is key to maintaining the local economy and preventing people from leaving the state, the Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities told the audience at last week’s Charles River Regional Chamber’s Spring Business Breakfast.

Secretary Ed Augustus urged people at the event held at the Needham Sheraton to support the MBTA Communities Law in their communities, as well as pushing the Legislature to support the Governor’s Affordable Homes Act.

He cited the example of a 24-year-old woman who moved home with her parents to save money while getting her graduate degree, and still has not been able to move out — despite having a degree and a good job — because she can’t find a place that she can afford.

“Now this woman’s story might be simply unfortunate, if it was unique, but it’s not. There are 1,000s like her right now, in the greater Boston area,” Augustus said. “We’re in danger of losing bright young people like this. How long before people like her decide, maybe Massachusetts just isn’t a place they can afford to live? And it’s happening already. People ages 26 to 35 are the largest group leaving our state. That’s our workforce. That’s our future.”

Bob Rivers, Chairman and CEO of Eastern Bank, urged business leaders to join the “Yes in my backyard” group and support more housing being built.

“We have work with job openings, and they’re not getting filled, because so many folks are leaving the state because they can’t find an affordable place to live for main street businesses,” Rivers said. “It’s critical, in terms of continued downtown traffic, as residents we need to join the YIMBY team. Because our main street businesses drive the economic and cultural vibrancy of our communities.”

Augustus said that for half a century “we have been zoning ourselves into a corner.” In the 1980s, Massachusetts added 30,000 units of housing a year, but that has been cut nearly in half. The demand, however, has not decreased, leading to higher housing costs.

“We need to make sure that we’re able to build housing where we need it most,” he said. “The MBTA Communities Law does that.”

While some communities have rejected the MBTA Communities Law zoning, Augustus said that a large majority have adopted it.

“We’ve had a few communities that have not adopted the zoning and have received a lot of the headlines this spring, but what you may not have heard is that 71 communities have now adopted the zoning in response of the MBTA Communities Law, with an 85 percent success rate,” he said. “So, 85 percent of the zoning changes that have been brought to town meetings or city councils have passed. That’s a pretty good batting average.”

He addressed some of the critiques and concerns that he hears about the MBTA Communities Law. One is that it eliminates single-family zoning. He said that while it requires communities to include multifamily zoning, single family homes can still be built.

He also has heard that it won’t work in this community or that one.

“I hear over and over, quote, ‘Our community is unique.’ Every community has unique characteristics. That’s why the task of creating these multifamily districts falls to the communities,” he said. “They decide where these zones are within their communities in order to comply with the law. That’s partnership. What isn’t an option is doing nothing or ignoring the law. We all must do our part.”

Others worry about the number of school children who will move into the multifamily units.

“I’ve heard, multifamily housing will overrun our schools and cost our towns more money. School enrollment across Massachusetts has been in decline for 20 years, people are having fewer children or are waiting longer to have them,” Augustus said. “In fact, in districts with declining enrollment, it can often be a way of holding the line on school funding from the state, which is based on the number of children enrolled.”

The impact of the new housing on the roadway and on utilities is another frequently raised concern.

“Some have pointed to the total number of units allowed under new zoning, claiming the town’s can handle it. They mentioned traffic and water and sewer,” Augustus said. “The fact is, as much as we need the housing right now, this will not all be built tomorrow. We haven’t changed the laws of gravity.”

Rivers said he is concerned that without more housing cities and towns will stagnate, which will have negative impacts.

“I think one of the things that NIMBYs don’t recognize, if we keep everything the same we’re not going to grow and then costs are still gonna rise for all the public and safety services that we need,” Rivers said. “So the per capita cost is actually going to rise. it actually will fall If we actually lean in and do something.”

Augustus said the Legislature has been largely supportive of Gov. Maura Healey’s Affordable Homes Act, and the version of the legislation passed last week by the House of Representatives includes an additional $2 billion, for a total of more than $6 billion, to be spent on housing. It also includes a key policy, Augustus said, which allows for the creation of accessory dwelling units as of right.

“These are sometimes called in-law apartments or granny flats. Allowing ADUs as of right is the easiest way to gently add more housing,” he said. “We estimate that between 8,000 and 10,000 units of housing can be created across the state in the next five years, just with this one policy change alone. Five other New England states have already allowed for the conversion of a basement or garage to create more housing.”

Panelists at the Charles River Regional Chamber’s Spring Business Breakfast, from left, Jason Hoch of MassTech’s Innovation Institute, Dr. Emily Reichert of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Kate Fox of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, and Michael Bobbitt of the Massachusetts Cultural Council. (Courtesy of Charles River Chamber)

The Charles River Chamber also hosted a a discussion of growing the region’s and state’s economy with leaders from four sectors: Executive Director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Michael Bobbitt, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism Kate Fox, Deputy Director of MassTech’s Innovation Institute Jason Hoch, and CEO of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center Dr. Emily Reichert.

Also, Susan Paley, senior vice president of community relations with The Village Bank, was honored for her decades of service to the community.

See videos from the Chamber Breakfast, produced by NewTV, below

4 thoughts on “Housing Secretary Tells Chamber Crowd That MBTA Communities Act is Key to a Strong Economy

    • I’ll buy into that Fred. Good Ol’ Bob, if he’s part of the bank, he’s got to be part of Eastern Insurance the ones a few years ago bought up all the little family Insurance companies, didn’t improve anything, as a matter of fact I still outstanding business with Eastern because they never got back to you or the famous line, “we’re waiting to hear from the underwriter”! Well, Eastern sold out this year to Gallager Ins. Group, so far the same responses in transition, from a consumer’s viewpoint, anything that Ol’ Bob tells us is good for us, I wouldn’t believe!

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