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Mass Gov. Healey pitches $4.1 billion plan to deal with state's affordable housing crisis

A four-unit building in Fall River, Mass., that is part of the state-run public housing stock.
Robin Lubbock
A four-unit building in Fall River, Mass., that is part of the state-run public housing stock.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey unveiled a $4.1 billion bond bill on Wednesday to jump-start the creation and renovation of affordable housing across Massachusetts. The proposal is more than double the size of the state’s last major housing bond bill enacted in 2018.

Healey recently declared a “state of emergency” because of the shortage of shelters and rising homelessness. And the state has long faced a shortage of affordable housing, with more than 184,000 people on the waitlist for state public housing.

This story was first published by WBUR. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the New England News Collaborative.

The proposal also includes a broad range of tax breaks, legal changes and other efforts to spur construction of new housing. The Healey administration estimates the bill could help create, preserve or improve 65,000 homes.

“This is breaking the mold in terms of what we’re asking for,” said state Secretary of Housing Ed Augustus. “We think that’s what the moment demands. That’s what the housing crisis needs in order to move the needle."

A WBUR and ProPublica investigation last month found nearly 2,300 units are unoccupied, including many that need repairs or major renovations. 

Just days after the investigation, Augustus announced a "90-day push" to reduce the number of vacancies in state public housing by the end of the year. It includes financial and other assistance to help local housing authorities, which maintain and operate the apartments.

Healey’s bond bill for capital projects, which still needs approval from the Legislature, includes $1.6 billion to repair and modernize state-run public housing units across Massachusetts. Augustus said the money would cut the backlog of $3.2 million in repairs in half. He said the state will look for future opportunities to address the remaining backlog.

One local housing official said he was elated by the potential increase in funding.

“When I heard the amount, I felt a major sigh of relief,” said David Hedison, executive director of the Chelmsford Housing Authority. Hedison called it a “down payment” on efforts to preserve the state’s public housing stock, which includes 41,500 state-funded subsidized units.

The bond bill also includes increases for other types of housing funds, including efforts to create and preserve affordable housing, environmentally-friendly homes and apartments for people experiencing homelessness or recovering from substance abuse. It sets aside new pots of money, such as $175 million for municipal infrastructure projects to encourage denser housing development.

The bill would allow cities and affordable housing commissions to enact taxes up to 2% on real estate sales to fund affordable housing. The proposal would exempt the first $1 million of a home sale — or even more in counties where the median price of housing is higher than that. Officials in some cities like Boston and Somerville have already pushed the Legislature for permission to enact such a tax, called a real estate transfer fee.

It would also create new tax credits to encourage the development of homes for low- and moderate-incomes and expand the existing Community Investment Tax Credit, which supports donations to community development corporations.

Under the plan, single-family homeowners would have the right to build “accessory dwelling units” of less than 900-square feet on their lots.

Healey also wants to make it easier for communities to require developers to include affordable housing units in new buildings by reducing the threshold needed to enact such a measure from two-thirds to a simple majority of a government body.

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