June 11, 2018

Let’s start with reasonable zoning laws

Worcester County and especially the city of Worcester are in a homebuilding crisis. The very limited supply of available homes is pushing home prices higher – single-family sale prices have increased 9 percent in Worcester County in 2018 – but the rate of new construction for both single and multi-family homes remains far below their pre-recession levels.

Worcester County is building fewer homes compared to the rest of the state. In 2003, Worcester County accounted for 18 percent of all homes built in Massachusetts; from 2013-2016 it never exceeded 9 percent of the statewide total.

Our central city's role in the homebuilding industry is decreasing as well: In 2003, the city built 19 percent of homes in the county; by 2016, that number was 5 percent. Despite having the second highest population in the state, Worcester ranked 30th in the number of homes built (487), falling behind several communities in Greater Boston, and regional suburbs like Hopkinton, Framingham, Natick and Boxborough.

Getting back to pre-recession inventory and pricing levels isn't necessarily the goal – as the economic downturn was in part driven by a nationwide bubble in the housing market – but with demand increasing and supply tightening significantly, the region should add new inventory at a rate ensuring prices remain reasonable, without flooding the housing market.

To that end, Gov. Charlie Baker's proposed Housing Choice initiative includes a multi-pronged piece of legislation to change laws around zoning and building regulations, the first such effort since the 1970s. There's a lot to like and debate in the bill, but a key aspect of it – and a critical element to the reform – is removing the restriction that says communities needing a supermajority to overturn zoning, and instead instituting a simple majority vote.

Massachusetts is one of only 10 states requiring a supermajority for zoning changes, according to the Baker Administration. In a city like Worcester – which is more built out than its surrounding towns and has new rental housing projects bringing new residents to the city – simplifying the ability to change land uses makes a lot of sense. The 365 apartments at the 145 Front St. development in downtown Worcester starting to come online this year could end up making this the most productive year for homebuilding in Worcester since 2005, when 501 new homes were built. The site the Front Street complex was built on a former shopping mall and an expansive garage, so rezoning clearly has its benefits. Enabling local governments to more easily change their zoning, enables them to adapt better to modern land uses, like the urban apartment lifestyle the Front Street project will provide.

The local, state and national housing markets are complex animals requiring a wave of people wanting to buy, wanting to sell, and reaching a price both those parties want to buy and sell at. By taking a simple step in changing how zoning regulations can be streamlined, Massachusetts can help local governments remove obstacles slowing the pace of homebuilding. The state legislature ought to get this done this year.


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