GOV. MAURA HEALEY’S support for allowing municipalities to enact a real estate transfer tax could offer some cover to the cities and towns that have been agitating for the controversial policy change as yet another tool to shore up their affordable housing stock.
Her $4 billion five-year housing bond bill, announced in Chelsea on Wednesday morning, is the administration’s opening volley of a long-range policy debate. Tucked among more than two dozen policy proposals is a provision that would let local communities impose a 0.5 to 2 percent fee on property sale proceeds over $1 million, or the county’s median home sales price, whichever is greater.
While the administration projects the fee would affect fewer than 14 percent of all residential sales – paid by the seller and designated for affordable housing developments within the community – attempts to push these fees have hit the Beacon Hill buzzsaw for years. Legislative leaders demonstrated little appetite to approve transfer fee home rule petitions from at least 10 cities and towns from Greater Boston to the Cape.
Nor did the corner office. Former governor Charlie Baker looked askance at proposals out of cities like Boston to impose such a transfer fee.
Many of Healey’s proposals to boost “competitiveness” through encouraging housing production over her first year have been expansions or continuations of Baker-era policies, such as the MBTA Communities Act. This marks a high-profile departure.
“We know we have to go really big,” Healey said on Wednesday. For decades, she said, housing production has not kept pace with our population growth, leading to a severe housing shortage in Massachusetts. “There aren’t enough homes to go around and prices have gone up. I don’t want people leaving. I don’t want to see people struggling. We don’t want our economy to stop growing and thriving. We don’t want our communities to see disinvestment. So what we’re going to do is invest in housing, invest in new homes, unlocking new opportunities, making homes and housing more affordable.”
Real estate groups are engaged in a multi-front fight against these fees, objecting to individual home rule petitions and the housing bond bill proposal.
“While we support the goals of the bill, we have deep concerns about the inclusion of a sales tax on real estate,” said Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, in a statement. “It’s an unstable source of revenue that would cause more harm than good at a time when people and businesses are leaving the state because it is just too expensive.”
Administration housing officials say that fear is misplaced. They are confident that such a fee would not impede housing production, specifically because the money is earmarked for affordable housing rather than being an open revenue source.
Sen. Lydia Edwards, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Housing and who has backed a transfer fee option, said she has seen the conversation around the fees “evolve, in that more and more cities and towns are asking for a version of it. More and more cities and towns who want to participate, and build in this way, are looking for as many tools as possible to help them fund it. I think that’s smart.”
The transfer tax proposed by the Healey administration includes carveouts targeting low-income homebuyers and first time homebuyers. Transfers between family members, intergovernmental entities, or those in affordable housing would be exempt, according to the Office of Housing and Livable Communities.
As the tax would not kick in until after the first million in home sale value, a transaction for $1.1 million, for instance, would tax the $100,000 of excess.
Even if it makes it through Beacon Hill, the transfer tax is only a local-option authorization. Cities and towns would then need to gear up for their own pushes for whatever percentage feels right.
Home prices across Greater Boston are astronomical, even as the number of sales continues to plummet in an ever crunched housing market. The median home sales price for the region hit a record high of $900,000 earlier this year and sat at about $850,000 in September.
Those skyrocketing prices could be a windfall for the city of Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu has argued in pushing a home rule petition for a local transfer tax. Based on 2021 numbers, she said earlier this year, about 7 percent of sales would have been subject to the tax and generated up to $100 million in local revenue.
Wu thanked the Healey administration for its bond bill proposals on Wednesday morning.
“From doubling our funds for affordable housing by enabling a modest transfer fee, to supporting office-to-residential conversions and accessory dwelling units, these proposals match Boston’s plans to move on all fronts for more housing and more affordability,” she said.