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Baker: Easier Zoning Changes For Mass. Towns Would Bring Much Needed Housing

BOSTON (CBS) - The housing crisis in Massachusetts is not just a problem for those in underserved communities; people at all income levels are struggling to find an affordable place to live.

"I hear from business leaders all the time that this is their number one concern with respect to the future," Governor Baker told WBZ's David Wade when the two sat down for an interview at the State House.

Governor Charlie Baker
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Image: WBZ-TV)

The lack of housing is a big problem in Salem and it forced Stephanie Devaiu out of town. "I had to move to Peabody because it's less than half the amount of money for the same amount of bedrooms," she said.

When workers leave town, businesses struggle to find help, and that is of huge concern to Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.

"There's a real crisis going on with folks who used to be able to live in Salem, work in the service industry, the hospitality industry in particular," she said. "It's part of the ethos of who we are, that you can pour beer or pour coffee for a living and still afford to live here."

Governor Baker calls it a 'production' problem.

"Part of it is we have created a very complicated and difficult path to travel for anyone who wants to build housing in any of our communities," he explained.

It's a path Mayor Driscoll knows all too well.

"It's soul-sucking", she said, referring to efforts in her community to make zoning changes that would allow two abandoned Catholic schools to be redeveloped into housing. By state law, such zoning changes need to pass by a two-thirds vote. Both times the Salem proposals failed by one vote in the city council.

Salem housing project
Efforts in Salem to convert two abandoned schools into housing, have failed by one vote. (Image: WBZ-TV)

"For us that would be 8 out of 11 [votes]. We've had lots of really good ideas around zoning fall to the wayside based on 7 out of 11," Mayor Driscoll said.

Governor Baker is backing a bill that will allow towns to switch to a majority vote for zoning changes. The bill doesn't specifically require any affordable housing be included in a project, but the Governor believes more housing at any price point will solve the inventory problem, which in turn will help bring prices down.

But what about those who believe the bill will just line the pockets of developers?

"There is a reason why we are building so much high-end housing in Massachusetts," Baker said. "Because those are the only people who can get the kind of return they need to go through the time and effort and resources required to get the two-thirds vote."

Baker filed a similar bill last year, but it failed. Mayor Driscoll hopes for a different outcome this year.

"If we don't figure this out, we are going to change the character of who we are as a community and why people really appreciate Salem."

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