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When housing is on the agenda? Show up for housing.

There are 351 reasons why we’ve been underproducing housing for decades in Massachusetts—101 of which are in western Massachusetts. They are our towns and cities, each of which operates as its own political body and holds a lot of local control when it comes to housing production (think zoning, policies, and regulations). All of which influence where housing can be built, who can live there, the height of buildings, and the density of units.

To everyone in the Way Finders’ orbit, I share this message: When housing is on your town’s agenda, show up for housing! Find out what’s being proposed. Say “Yes” to creating the mix of affordable housing that all communities need—especially to hold on to and attract residents and to keep the economy strong.

Say “Yes” to housing for our educators, firefighters, healthcare workers, older adults, and young families. Advocate on behalf of those who are cost burdened by rent and rent hikes, or are struggling to find anywhere to live. Who may be working a third shift or two jobs to make ends meet, or caring for young children, or waiting for a bus ride home. Or facing any of the many stressors that come with spending more than half your income on rent. Speak up for them!

Because too often, it’s a few loud voices who show up to say “No.” Who are looking backward instead of forward. Who do have the time, energy, and means to attend meetings and sway decisions that effectively bar or stall housing production. The influence of a vocal few can come at a steep cost to so many, and this power dynamic is a factor in the state’s ongoing housing crisis.

We touched on these topics and more during a recent episode of Focus Springfield’s “Government Matters” Community TV show, which you can view here. I was on a Housing Panel with two members of the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, Director Mark Melnik and Research Manager Kerry Spitzer, for the first of a multi-part series hosted by G. Michael Dobbs. The launch point for our broad conversation was, “Everyone is talking about the housing crisis, for renters and owners. What are people facing and what can we do?”

From my vantage point—I’ve been at the helm of Way Finders since 2020—the housing crisis in our region is real, enduring, and growing for some populations. We hear from clients who are experiencing rent increases of $100, $200, or $500 a month. Some weeks, we see more than 700 applications for emergency housing financial assistance—this surpasses the numbers we experienced during the early days of the pandemic. The need to build more affordable housing, and expand access to transportation and employment, is imperative.

One graphic our panel shared was the number of building permits issued nationwide per 1,000 residents by state in 2022. Ninth from the bottom? Massachusetts. This is not where we need to be when our region’s housing supply gap is projected to reach 19,000 units by 2025. If we do not produce more housing, we will continue to see residents leaving for states where permits are being issued, where housing is more abundant and affordable. Because as long as housing supply is stubbornly low, demand and costs will remain high. And those who have the least will struggle the most.

A bright spot that I was glad to point to is the recent funding of our Plaza Apartments in South Hadley, which will bring 60 mixed-income units near the center of South Hadley Falls. This project was enabled in part by the town’s passing of Chapter 40R, a special zoning district that allows communities to have greater control over housing development. Chapter 40R is a voluntary state initiative that awards financial incentives to communities who zone for dense developments in locations that align with smart-growth principles. Such locations must be in areas of concentrated development, near transit stations, or in other places deemed appropriate for higher density housing.

Does your town have a 40R district in place? Find out! Every community needs to be asking—and answering—this question: “Where should we build the housing we need?” Exploring Chapter 40R can be a key part of this discussion, as it brings advantages beyond financial incentives, including a streamlined development process that helps reduce the time and cost of development.

Thank you to Focus Springfield for bringing attention to the need for positive solutions and positive voices in support of affordable housing in our region.

Keith Fairey, President & CEO