Western Mass legislators want rural representation in housing bond bill
|Published: 11-02-2023 7:44 PM
Rural legislators and organizations are working hard to make sure they get a portion of Gov. Maura Healey’s five-year, $4.12 billion housing bond bill that was unveiled earlier this month.
Since Healey took office in January, she has created the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, raised housing to a secretariat/cabinet-level post and most recently filed the housing bond bill, signifying her office’s focus on housing as a priority.
“It was great to see the governor’s commitment to housing and the administration’s recognition of the housing crisis in the state,” said Gina Govoni, executive director of the Turners Falls-based Franklin County Regional Housing & Redevelopment Authority. “That being said, I do think there are some overlooked opportunities for rural communities.”
Housing projects in Franklin County are often passed over as the state housing formula favors more competitive, larger projects in densely populated areas. Govoni pointed out that in other states, rural areas often compete in a different field for affordable housing tax credits, so they are not being pitted against larger cities.
Since 2015, three affordable housing projects in Franklin County have been funded by the state. These consist of 330 housing units, 96 of which are considered affordable. A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities noted that, with the variety of tools for development and redevelopment, and the added $4.12 billion in funds, the housing bond bill is designed to work for a variety of cities and towns.
The regional housing authority, other organizations and legislators are now working to ensure rural communities are represented in the new bill.
“We will always lose when formulas favor larger developments,” noted state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton.
For rural communities to get access to state funds for development, the money often has to be specifically earmarked and allocated for rural uses or have flexibility in how it can be spent. While the current bill does not yet have specifically rural funding designations, legislators are hopeful they will get designated money before it is signed into law.
“Not having a rural carveout in this bill or frankly in the state allocation plan for low-income housing tax credits are two real oversights we are hoping to work with the administration and delegation to ensure,” Govoni said.
The Healey-Driscoll administration has already made several attempts to hear what the region thinks of this bill. Healey visited Amherst where she participated in a roundtable discussion about affordable housing on Wednesday. Housing Secretary Edward Augustus visited Athol on Thursday and will visit Greenfield next week to hear about the housing needs of the region.
“Kudos to them for filing the proposal and then coming to the people to talk about the impact,” Comerford said.
There are many aspects of the bill that local officials think can add rural representation. Govoni hopes to add rural representatives to the new Housing Advisory Council that would be created if the new bill were to pass.
Comerford mentioned she is excited about the addition of a luxury real estate transfer fee in the bill, noting she has proposed a bill that would adopt such a fee with the Local Option for Housing Affordability (LOHA) Coalition for the past three legislative sessions. She said she hopes to strengthen this part of the bill “to maximize its helpfulness in smaller rural communities.”
Govoni said she is happy with the bill’s removal of the need for a home rule petition for housing authorities. She said the Franklin County Regional Housing & Redevelopment Authority and the Shelburne Housing Authority went through a lengthy process involving state approval to merge. This removal will streamline the process and allow for more creativity within housing authorities.
State Sen. Paul Mark, D-Becket, said he’d like to add a clause to the bill allowing municipal affordable housing trusts to be regionalized to be more competitive in receiving state funding. Mark said he has been working with a constituent in Colrain to add this as its own bill, but it may be included in Healey’s housing bond bill. He also hopes the bond bill will include funding for rural infrastructure, which will allow for housing development. The inadequacy of sewage and water in rural small towns, he thinks, is a major difficulty in the development of housing in this region.
The Rural Policy Advisory Commission has also spoken up about the need for rural representation. The commission wrote a letter addressed to Augustus listing 11 ideas to add to the bill that would benefit rural communities.
Govoni said the state has not had a comprehensive housing plan in her lifetime, and looking forward holistically is a great step forward.
“On a whole, this is extraordinarily heartening,” Comerford said of the bond bill. “I hope that my delegation links arms and we come to a good consensus about the strengthening changes we would like and we can push forward as a team.”