The Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government met at the Massachusetts State House Monday for a hearing on several different legislative proposals on neighborhood development and zoning.
Several state representatives and officials from various organizations pitched their plans to bring improvements to Massachusetts neighborhoods, including increasing affordable housing rates, dismantling restricting zoning regulations, protecting open space environments and diversifying neighborhood amenities.
Jesse Kanson-Benanav, a senior project manager at the Somerville Community Corporation and founder of A Better Cambridge, an organization dedicated to improving life in Cambridge based on several platforms, spoke about his personal struggle with housing in Cambridge.
“Even as a two-income, three graduate degree, professional household, we struggle to afford the cost of living here,” Kanson-Benanav said. “As we consider what is next for our family, the cost of housing makes it seem nearly impossible to remain living this close to our jobs, our friends and our community.”
Kanson-Benanav said his story represents the common narrative of millennials in the area, and that all cities and towns in Massachusetts must work together in order to address this issue.
“Cambridge, Boston and Somerville could continue to develop hundreds of multifamily units per year and still not make a dent in the regional and statewide housing need,” Kanson-Benanav. “I believe that every community in the Commonwealth must play a role in producing housing opportunities for my generation and for future generations to come.”
Andrew DeFranza, the executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, a group that provides housing for low-income individuals and families, said zoning regulations in Massachusetts often stand in the way of development.
“We look at these development sites … there’s lots of reasons why we want to develop there,” DeFranza said. “But the fact is we have gated municipalities, not gated communities, but gated municipalities, and the gating is the zoning.”
DeFranza said the current zoning regulations discriminate against those that are unable to afford the skyrocketing prices of single-family homes, and called for the regulations to be re-evaluated.
“We need zoning relief that is going to allow us to build multifamily housing,” DeFranza said. “We’re better than this in Massachusetts, we do not want to have exclusionary and discriminatory zoning.”
Massachusetts State Sen. Julian Cyr showed his support for Kanson-Benanav’s argument, and said housing prices are “out of whack” at the moment.
“On the Cape and Islands, the district I represent, we’ve become so profoundly unaffordable,” Cyr said. “I’m the state senator for my district, and I cannot afford to purchase property in my district.”
Several Massachusetts residents who attended the meeting vocalized their frustration with the current housing system and shared their hopes for future legislative reform.
Susan Kurtzman, 68, of Truro, said she came to support legislation that would increase housing options for younger people in her area because she worries for her son’s future.
“I own a small business on Cape Cod, a family business, and my son works in the business with me,” Kurtzman. “We don’t have housing in the town of Truro that can accommodate younger people, and my son and his fiancé actually had to move 50 miles away, and he commutes daily.”
Eli Kurtzman, 38, of West Yarmouth, Susan’s son, said he is frustrated with the current housing regulations, and hopes to see legislation passed that would make it legal to build on houses and rent these spaces out for people looking for more affordable housing options.
“We [Kurtzman and his fiancé] were looking for someplace to rent, or possibly something to buy, and there’s just nothing available,” Kurtzman said. “It would be great if somebody who owns a home in Truro … could build a little accessory for a child, or a grandparent to stay in.”
Alicia Bowman, 52, of Newton, said she came to the meeting because she is concerned about downsizing with nearing retirement in the future.
“My husband and I have lived in Newton for 20 years, and we want to continue living in Newton, but there are not a lot of opportunities to effectively downsize and still live in a nice place, live in a good location,” Bowman said.