We debated the zoning reform bill today.
The final vote was relatively close for a major bill with leadership support — 23 to 15. Senators had a wide range of concerns and the bill sponsors were prepared to and did accept very substantial amendments (notably weakening both the accessory use and the density requirements). These concessions appeared necessary to win the votes needed to pass the bill.
As you know from my prior columns, I committed to support the bill based on my conviction that, for the environment, for economic development and for fairness, we need to find a way to increase housing production near jobs and transit in Massachusetts. I was pleased to speak for and vote for the bill.
But the volume and significance of the changes that the Senate made on the floor — and the close vote — make clear that a House-Senate consensus will not be reached before formal sessions end on July 31.
That’s not a failure. Big bills often need to be moved to a floor debate in order to surface the real issues and force people to define their views.
Here are some of my takeaways:
First, the core principles of the bill are sound — it is essential that we simplify and standardize zoning procedure across communities and it is also essential that we create some power in regional or state authorities to compel by-right zoning for multi-family housing in places where it makes sense (close to jobs or transit).
Second, while the bill has strong support from the environmental community and from municipal planners, it lacks broad support from elected officials who are directly accountable to residents. Local elected officials know well how passionately people feel about any change to their neighborhood and are loathe to support possible increases in density.
Third, ultimately, it will be necessary to put Chapter 40B on the table to get this bill passed. The planning community has hoped that they could impose new zoning obligations on municipalities — to accept in-law apartments and more dense multi-family housing — without putting 40B in play at all. 40B is the law that allows developers to override local zoning and build subsidized housing anywhere in a municipality unless 10% of the housing units in the municipality are already subsidized.
40B has been effective in producing housing, but it is a creature of the 60s when the concept of smart growth was not well understood — nothing in 40B constrains developers to build near transit or to preserve valuable open space. 40B development is also terribly inefficient — the soft costs (lawyers and consultants) in the 40B process are huge.
There was strong support for an amendment mandating a study of 40B. The amendment — authored by Senator Lewis of Winchester — failed by a vote of 19-20, but it seemed clear that a number of additional votes for the amendment would have been available if it had not been strongly opposed by the bill sponsors and the leadership team.
I joined the debate in support of the amendment. If we could legislate a fair and workable set of rules that allowed the construction of more multi-family housing by right, the complex 40B permitting process might be unnecessary — subsidized housing developers could take advantage of the by-right rules. The prospect of eliminating the threat of poorly-planned 40B development might bring municipal leaders to the table and lead to a consensus bill.
I hope that we are able to continue the conversation over the months to come and develop a more robust approach for consideration in 2017.