Massachusetts House Speaker Backtracks On Real Estate Transfer Tax

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By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

After saying he was open to considering a local-option tax on high-value property sales to fund affordable housing, Massachusetts House Speaker Ron Mariano said he doesn’t know if the policy is a solution to the state’s housing woes.

The controversial policy idea may be what is holding up the House in taking up Governor Maura Healey’s $4.1 billion housing bond bill, which she filed last October and has said is critical to addressing the shortage of affordable and available homes in Massachusetts.

Mariano said Wednesday that the transfer tax is “not as popular as I thought it might be.”

“I’ve been listening to a lot of members. A lot of comments about the taxation issue, around the transfer tax. And so it’s slowed me down a lot,” Mariano said. “I’m gonna have to really weigh the measure of where that would, what would happen in the chamber if we brought that up.”

The proposal in Healey’s bill would clear the way for additional local levies on property sales to be adopted at the local level without any additional approval needed from Beacon Hill. Any city, town, or regional affordable housing commission could adopt a real estate transfer fee of between 0.5 percent and 2 percent on the portions of the sale above a certain amount, with a vote of the entity’s legislative body. The threshold would be either $1 million or the median single-family home sales price for the county, whichever is greater.

The seller of the property would owe the tax, and proceeds would be deployed toward developing below-market-rate housing. Administration officials said that because the money is earmarked specifically for housing, they do not believe the additional fee would hamstring new production.

Healey’s office estimated the fee, if adopted, would affect “fewer than 14 percent of all residential sales.”

At least 10 cities and towns — Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, Arlington, Amherst, Chatham, Concord, Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet — have sent the Legislature home rule petitions seeking permission to launch real estate transfer fees. Supporters say the measure is desperately needed to help more people to be able to afford to live and work in those communities.  

In March, Mariano told business leaders he was open to the idea.

“Now, I understand that the idea of a transfer fee is a cause for concern for some of you, but if you believe that the issue of housing affordability is a genuine crisis, then we must explore all options that have the potential to make a real difference,” Mariano said during a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce forum.

On Wednesday, May 15, Mariano said he could see the advantage for certain communities, but didn’t think it would work for everyone.

“Once I figured out how it worked, I could see the real benefit to rich communities, and not so many benefits to low-income or middle-income communities,” he said.

During a TV interview with Jon Keller of WBZ earlier this month, Mariano expressed doubt about the appetite of the House “to talk about increased revenues at all.”

“Some of them work for wealthy towns — the transfer tax, for instance, works great if you live in Nantucket, where you have high value properties. Not so good if you live in Lawrence,” Mariano said during the interview, which was broadcast Sunday, May 5.  “And I think they serve at the detriment of creating a universal tax policy in Massachusetts. So I’m not a big fan of any of these, but you know we’ll talk to the people who present it, but I have a healthy skepticism on how valuable they are.”

The language in Healey’s bill is a local-option tax, meaning it would require municipal governments to approve it and the extra levy would only apply within the particular city or town.

Housing advocates who support the proposal say it would be especially helpful in communities with a lot of tourism, such as the Cape and Islands and the Berkshires, where wealthy people buy property without living there year-round, pushing out locals. The tax on the expensive second-home sales would help fund below-market-rate housing for local residents, they say.

Mariano said, “Yes, it would be a local option. But the amount of money you could generate in Nantucket would be twice the money you could generate in Lawrence. The discrepancies are so great that I don’t know if it’s a solution.”

In addition to the transfer tax proposal, Healey’s $4.1 billion bond bill includes 27 other policy riders and targeted expenditures aimed at spurring production of new units, upgrading the aging and neglected public housing stock, and converting state land into housing-ready plots.

Combined with housing-related tax credits that became law last year, Healey’s office estimated the proposals together could lead to creating more than 40,000 new housing units, chipping away at a shortage that has previously been estimated at roughly 200,000.

Healey and her team are on the road pitching the governor’s housing agenda this month, speaking with business leaders, municipal officials, hospital executives, veterans, and homelessness advocacy groups, as the Legislature contemplates the proposal she put in front of them seven months ago.

Mariano previously said the House would take up the bill “shortly after” they completed their budget debate, which wrapped up three weeks ago. At the time of his remarks mid-week, the House was scheduled to tackle an information technology bond bill Wednesday, May 15 and a major health care bill Thursday, May 16.

Asked Wednesday, MQY 15  about a timeline for action on the housing bond, he responded, “Well, we’re working on it now. I would think we would take it up — we have a few other things in mind before that. But it’s coming. We intend to do it.”


[Michael P. Norton contributed reporting]


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