Our Opinion: Affordable housing must be a priority

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When Beacon Hill eases back into session after Labor Day it's a good idea to move front and center with your pet projects in the hope that they won't be lost when action heats up. That was Gov. Baker's intent last week when he gathered housing and development officials from his administration and the administrations of Gov. Mitt Romney and Gov. Deval Patrick to make the case for increasing affordable housing in the state.

A report released in June by the Massachusetts Growth Alliance concluded that while the state's economy is growing affordable housing is not keeping up, which has led to prices on existing housing that don't meet the definition of affordable. According to the study, some communities in the state actively restrict housing by both policy and practice and that zoning processes are increasingly "ad hoc" or "discretionary." Certainly not every affordable housing project is right for a town, but regulations must be consistent and not be used specifically to squelch worthy projects that don't find favor with residents.

The governor is pushing his proposal to allow municipalities to adopt zoning rules related to housing by a simple majority of their governing body rather than the required two-thirds supermajority. Massachusetts is one of the few remaining states that still requires the supermajority. The governor said he finds it frustrating when good affordable housing projects make it through various committees by majority votes only to be stymied by a final vote that doesn't achieve the supermajority.

Gov. Baker first introduced this initiative in 2017, only to have it stall in the Legislature even though the major objection voiced by lawmakers was that it didn't go far enough to address the housing shortage. This represents a good start and shouldn't be penalized because it is not a complete solution. The state should explore ways to provide financial incentives that encourage reputable developers to pursue projects.

Berkshire County faces a situation in which many employees can't afford to live in the towns they work in. This deprives those towns of younger people who would serve on committees and run for office if they could reside there. The need for secure, high-paying jobs is undeniable in the Berkshires, but the businesses that provide those jobs are not likely to come here if there is inadequate, reasonably priced housing for their employees.

Unfortunately, a disturbing stigmatizing of renters as somehow harmful to a town has been seen in Berkshire communities that in recent years have blocked solid affordable housing projects. This prejudice can't be legislated away, but legislation can make it easier for the development of more affordable housing. The governor's modest effort to eliminate the supermajority vote is one example that should be addressed by the Legislature soon.

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