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Baker’s starter house effort a bust

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CommonWealth, December 2020

With the cost of buying a home in Eastern Massachusetts continuing to soar further out of reach for many families, a Baker administration plan designed to spur construction of affordably priced “starter homes” seemed just the thing to provide hope for would-be homeowners.

The new Starter Home Zoning District was launched in 2016 amid hopes it would encourage suburbs to loosen up restrictive development rules. Under the plan, communities that opened the door to modestly-sized and affordably-priced single-family homes on small lots by revamping development regulations would be rewarded with cash bonuses from state coffers. But four years after it was approved by the Legislature, the program is stuck at the starting line, having yet to produce a single home.

The kind of housing envisioned under the program would be a lifeline for middle-income buyers priced out of the American dream of home ownership in one of the country’s most expensive housing markets. What’s more, it would be a boon to the state’s economy, where employers say their growth is often hamstrung by the lack of reasonably priced housing for mid-level employees.

State officials insist it’s too early to pass judgment, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposed Housing Choice bill, separate legislation that would make it easier for communities to adopt the zoning changes needed for the starter home program, has languished on Beacon Hill for well more than two years.

But it’s not clear that the Housing Choice bill would make a difference for the starter home initiative. Meanwhile, even some of those who were early fans of the program have soured on it, saying it is simply not poised to deliver on the promise of reasonably priced housing in a market that has become badly skewed toward high-end homes.

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