Immediate Priorities for Housing Justice in the Massachusetts State LegislatureMike Connolly
Most MIT faculty tend to pay attention to the federal budget, which funds NIH, NSF, DOE, and other major granting agencies. However, thousands of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty are also impacted by decisions made by our state legislature. One of the areas where we can have the biggest impact on quality-of-life issues is with our housing policies. Last year, we took action to pass the nation’s strongest eviction and foreclosure moratorium – and yet, as we look ahead to this fall, there’s a lot more work left to do.
As the State Representative for Cambridge and Somerville’s 26th Middlesex district – my constituents include significant numbers of MIT staff and students. In this legislative update, I summarize some of the critical housing issues that have been before us in the legislature and outline my priorities for action this fall.
Extending the eviction and foreclosure moratorium
When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck Massachusetts last year, I immediately filed legislation to ban evictions and foreclosures. Working in close partnership with housing justice organizers, tenant advocates, and legislative leaders, we were able to pass the nation’s strongest eviction and foreclosure moratorium, which was signed into law on April 20, 2020 despite strong objections from some Republicans and some in the real estate industry.
For the next six months, as the pandemic cut short thousands of lives and shut down large swaths of our Commonwealth, vulnerable tenants and at-risk homeowners were fully protected from the threat of displacement, and our approach was hailed as a national model that helped prevent further loss of life.
Our moratorium law provided Governor Baker with the option of implementing extensions – but by October of last year, the Governor decided to let the moratorium expire. In its place, he implemented something he called the Eviction Diversion Initiative (EDI). So far, EDI has had mixed results. Hundreds of millions of dollars in rental assistance funds have been made available, but many tenants are either unaware of these resources or have had their applications mishandled by overwhelmed service agencies.
And the vast majority of tenants who face eviction continue to do so without legal representation.
Until very recently, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had its own eviction moratorium in effect nationally. But last month the Supreme Court ruled that the CDC order is no longer valid in the absence of further Congressional action. The Biden Administration is now calling on states to once again pass their own eviction moratoria to help mitigate the impact of the Delta variant. For my part, I am continuing to advocate for action to ensure housing stability. Last month I testified before the Judiciary Committee and spoke out on the Housing Committee, imploring my colleagues to join me in answering the call of the Biden Administration to halt evictions and foreclosures of Covid-impacted tenants. I continue to strongly advocate for the Covid-19 Housing Equity bill to do just that.
The need for a truly comprehensive housing bill
Last year also saw Governor Baker’s “Housing Choice” bill passed into law. This legislation adjusts the local approval threshold for certain zoning changes, from the standard two-thirds vote of a city council or town meeting, to a simple majority vote in cases where housing production can be enhanced.
Governor Baker introduced this bill back in 2017. After failing to make it to the floor during the regular 2017-18 legislative session, an effort was made in late 2018 to pass it during an “informal session” where there’s no opportunity for debate or amendments. Any one legislator can object to passage of bills in informal sessions, and so I voiced my objection to this process because it excluded the people most impacted and deprived us of any chance to add important affordability and equity-related provisions to the Governor’s proposal.
In 2019, Governor Baker reintroduced his bill to make certain zoning changes easier. Most states only require a simple majority vote to change zoning ordinances, and as a representative of a community that strongly supports housing production, I recognized how this proposal could help push other communities to join us in doing their part, particularly those suburban communities that are often resistant to new, multifamily housing. However, I also remained clear that passage of the Governor’s bill would have to include equity-based and pro-affordability measures, too.
Ultimately, Governor Baker opted to insert his Housing Choice proposal within a larger economic development bill last year. The economic development bill is an “omnibus bill” that is always very popular because it provides funding for many local programs and initiatives. In the process of advancing the economic development bill, we in the legislature added several components to make the Governor’s housing production proposal more equitable, including provisions to support truly affordable housing and measures to seal eviction records and provide tenants with an opportunity to purchase their buildings.
When the economic development bill finally reached the Governor’s desk at the end of the 2019-2020 legislative session, the Governor vetoed all of the tenant protection and housing equity provisions we included. So in the end, he got his zoning reform bill, but all of the other progressive items were brushed aside. Frankly, I think this is outrageous, and I am calling on my colleagues to join me in supporting a more comprehensive housing bill this fall.
Against the backdrop of profound wealth and income inequality, with the continuing impact of systemic racism and white supremacy, where federal and state budgets for public housing have been subject to decades of austerity and economic gains have mostly gone to the very wealthy – we must recognize that zoning changes alone cannot solve the ongoing housing emergency. Yes, zoning reform can be part of the solution – but we also need to take action to protect against displacement and to directly fund the construction of truly affordable housing.
To do this, the legislature should advance a comprehensive housing bill that starts by reinstating all of the progressive items Governor Baker recently vetoed.
We need to make it easier to strengthen inclusionary housing ordinances, and we need to seal eviction records and provide tenants with opportunities to purchase their buildings whenever they go on the market.
In addition, we need to offer a right to counsel to tenants facing eviction, and we should authorize local options for real estate transfer fees, vacancy taxes, and rent regulation. At present, cities and towns have fairly limited options for protecting tenants. We should repeal the statewide ban on local rent control so that cities can bring everyone to the table – that means renters, homeowners, and landlords alike – to craft meaningful tenant protections.
Finally, thinking more broadly, we need to focus on the real common denominator in the struggle for affordable housing, i.e. money. On the federal level, we should advocate for reductions in the military budget and changes in tax policy to help boost the amount of funding that’s available for public housing programs. Likewise, on the state level, we can look to raise taxes on the very wealthy and large corporations to support public investment in affordable housing.