Some communities in line for break on water project loans

BOSTON – After the Legislature denied funding for a housing production program launched by Gov. Charlie Baker, State Treasurer Deb Goldberg is giving Baker a helping hand by trimming clean water projects loan costs in communities that have received a “housing choices” designation.

The Massachusetts Clean Water Trust Board, which Goldberg chairs, was slated to meet Wednesday afternoon with an agenda that included a resolution authorizing the Housing Choice Loan Program and aiming to provide 1.5 percent interest loans, rather than 2 percent, on projects in communities with the designation.

The Baker administration, using discretionary funds, launched the program in connection with a bill the governor is pushing to accelerate housing production in Massachusetts. That bill lowers the threshold required locally for zoning changes that jumpstart development from two thirds to majority approval.

Previewing the loan program, Goldberg told business leaders gathered for a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event on Wednesday morning that the trust will collaborate with the housing choice initiative.

“We’ve added in an incentive for communities to join the housing choice initiative,” Goldberg said. “This investment will support what we all know is an enormous need in this state. It’s amazing the things we can do in the treasurer’s office.”

The housing choices initiative, launched in December, is a voluntary program with incentives for municipal participants who can gain exclusive access to apply for state grants. The grants, which can be used for planning or to craft new zoning rules, could help more cities and towns that are vulnerable to large 40B developments because they have not reached a 10 percent affordable housing target outlined under Chapter 40B.

Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka in May joined Baker administration officials to announce 67 municipalities designated as “housing choices” communities, citing a need for more diverse housing options.

“It’s great,” Spilka said. “Hopefully next year there’ll be at least double this if not more, because this must be a priority for the administration, for the Legislature and for every single community that’s across the commonwealth.”

Baker funded the program at $2.7 million when he filed his fiscal 2019 proposal in January. The House and Senate did not include those funds in their budget proposals, which are pending before a six-member conference committee.

Under the housing choices loan program resolution pending before the Clean Water Trust, loan subsidies would be “subject to sufficient appropriation of contract assistance” by the state.

At a State House meeting on Tuesday, local officials put in a plug for the governor’s housing choices bill, which is competing with a broader housing and land use bill that is gaining momentum in the House.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holladay said municipal officials are “a little concerned” about competing proposals and want Baker’s bill to pass before formal sessions end for the year on July 31.

“We all feel the housing crunch in one way or another,” she said, noting local officials, realtors and home builders are in rare agreement on the bill.

“Housing affordability in the metro region, really in the state as a whole, is the sink or swim issue for the success and the vitality of the region,” said Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, backing Baker’s bill. “This is the issue we have to tackle. If we want to maintain the quality of life for people who live in Massachusetts and be able to continue to attract new people and new businesses to Massachusetts, we need to get this right.”

House Speaker Robert DeLeo on Monday mentioned the governor’s housing bill as one that legislative leaders are “taking a look at,” but added, “People are all over the place on the housing choices legislation.”

Joel Barrera, Gov. Baker’s deputy chief of staff for Cabinet affairs and strategic innovation, said the administration believes the lack of housing production in Massachusetts and the difficulty people experience settling in Massachusetts is “the biggest threat to our long-term economic vitality.”

Barrera urged local officials to get on the phone “with all the right people” to push for the passage of Baker’s bill.

“Now the question is folks wanting to add stuff to it. So I think in the next two weeks or so the House is going to decide do they want to do anything, how much do they want to do, are they going to add anything,” Barrera said. He added, “I think there’s lots of interest. It’s just really a question of now there’s controversy involved in terms of other things that could be added, and most people don’t understand any of these issues because they’re all complex. Complexity and controversy are never good in the legislative process.”

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