by Scott Van Voorhis Is it time to give the last rites to zoning reform legislation, that last, best hope of reining in runaway home prices and rents? With lawmakers on Beacon Hill once again dithering over the state budget and, having blown a deadline weeks ago with the arrival of the new fiscal year, things certainly aren’t looking great for zoning reform legislation. The impasse at the State House is maddening on any number of different levels. Passing a budget each year is the basic job of any state legislature, and each year the Bay State’s senators and representatives find a new way to muck it up and drag deliberations on deep into the summer. All that said, it may be too early to give up hope, for something crucial has changed when it comes to public attention and interest in the housing crisis. There is rising media and political attention to the both causes of the housing crisis and potential solutions that simply wasn’t there two, three or four years ago. And the increased attention may just be enough to ensure zoning reform doesn’t get cast into the legislative dustbin come August and instead survives to get voted on – and passed – possibly in the fall, or, failing that, next spring. Consensus Blames NIMBY Restrictions While there is no shortage of zoning reform proposals, the leader at this point is Gov. Charlie Baker’s “Housing Choice” bill, which would make it easier for communities to pave the way for new housing by changing entrenched zoning rules. “This will make a difference and the time for this bill to pass is absolutely now,” said Tamara Small, CEO of NAIOP–Massachusetts, which represents developers and the commercial real estate industry. “It seems like every day there is some report that points out the need for more housing.” Maybe this sounds like misplaced optimism. There is growing consensus the record shattering – and ever–more unaffordable prices in cities and suburbs across Massachusetts are a result not of a so-called “hot market,” but rather a dire and now years-long shortage of new housing of all types. Moreover, there is a growing understanding that the major reason for this shortage are the roadblocks to new housing construction that have been thrown up by NIMBY local zoning rules and officials. A recent report by the Boston Foundation took dead aim at the way many suburban communities have effectively zoned out new apartment construction, ironing into place long-standing patterns of racial segregation. Local housing researcher Amy Dain and the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance last month released their own, ground-breaking study last month. The report fingered the “paper wall” of zoning rules that is holding back new housing across all 100 cities, towns and suburbs across Eastern Massachusetts. Local officials are keeping a tight lid on what gets built by limiting the number of bedrooms, insisting on excessive parking requirements and encouraging age-restricted, over-55 housing. “While only a few municipalities effectively prohibit multi-family housing from being built altogether, all municipalities highly restrict its development relative to demand,” Dain’s report found. ‘There Is Something in the Air’ Both reports – as well as Baker’s efforts to push his own zoning reform bill – have been getting a fair amount of attention in the local media. It’s even on talk radio – albeit the high-end version featuring Jim Braude and Margery Eagan’s Boston Public Radio – with Braude last week debating with an MIT economist Jonathan Gruber the ins and outs of ways to corral runaway rents and housing costs. The local debate, in turn, is feeding into a larger, national debate on the issue as well on the role local zoning restrictions have played in stymying new housing construction, with everyone from Democratic Party presidential candidates to the Trump Administration weighing in with plans. There’s something happening out there. And it would be hard to imagine that our state legislature, as parochial, self-involved and at times clueless as it can be, will simply ignore the changing political dynamics behind this issue. “I think the level of conversation and press interest and editorial interest in the whole topic, the larger topic, is getting much more airtime than it did a year ago or two years ago,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “There is something in the air that is different – it’s palpable.” While Beacon Hill is notorious for its foot-dragging, it has also shown it can move quickly when it judges the time has come to take action on a hot-button issue. Casino gambling is a good example, with lawmakers having debated the issue for decades before legalizing expanded gambling in 2011. The debate over zoning reform goes back as long – if not longer – with housing groups having pushed proposals as far back as the early 2000s, when home prices and rents started moving beyond the means of middle- and working-class families across Greater Boston. Don’t Expect Movement Before Fall Certainly, no action will be taken this summer, and it may take until August to for lawmakers to finally pass a budget. But come September, the Joint Committee on Housing could very well report out Baker’s bill, or some version thereof that would include elements from other zoning reform bills. More likely, we will see more procrastination through the fall and next spring and finally some action. As always, a drop-dead deadline can work wonders. In this case, the legislature’s current session ends July 31, 2020, after which all bills that haven’t passed hit the legislative scrap heap. If so, we wouldn’t start to see any zoning changes until the fall of 2020 or even the spring of 2021, by which time the median home price in my once proudly affordable town, Natick, will probably be over $1 million. I’m only half kidding – according to The Warren Group, publisher of Banker & Tradesman, in May 2012, the median single-family home sale price there was $383,000; so far this year, it’s $590,000. But at this point, it’s better late than never when it comes to zoning reform and finally getting at the root cause of our state’s ever–loonier home prices.