Newton takes a step to solve housing crisis

A model for zoning reform emerges.

A rendering of a proposed building development shows a mix of housing and retail at the corner of Dunstan and Washington streets in West Newton.
A rendering of a proposed building development shows a mix of housing and retail at the corner of Dunstan and Washington streets in West Newton.Mark Development

Try to imagine the perfect spot to add housing in Greater Boston and it would be hard to dream up anyplace better than Newton’s Washington Street corridor. It’s rich with amenities, including a grocery store, drug stores, and even one of the region’s few remaining neighborhood movie theaters. It’s ripe not just for growth, but also for the most sustainable kind of growth: Located right next to two commuter rail stations, and served by MBTA buses, the area will ideally accommodate transit-oriented development that aims to minimize traffic and pollution.

Facing an epic housing crunch and crushing congestion, Greater Boston desperately needs just that sort of development in towns across the region — in just those sorts of places. On Monday, overcoming stiff opposition, the Newton City Council voted 17-6 to advance a plan that puts that vision a step closer to reality and would allow denser development along a 2½-mile stretch of Washington Street. If the region is going to solve its crisis, more cities and towns will also need to summon the courage to put the broader public good first.


The council voted to advance a plan that would allow buildings of up to 6 stories tall, encourage mixed-use spaces, and foster vibrancy (with, for instance, narrow storefronts and outdoor patios). It urges more affordable housing reserved for low-income residents, though without setting a specific goal. The vision the council endorsed also foresees redesigning the streets in the area to make them friendlier to pedestrians and cyclists. Right now, parking lots and low-rise buildings squander the corridor’s potential, and sidewalks are often narrow and forlorn.

The opposition to the changes came from neighbors who profess concern about how denser development might affect schools and traffic. Their reaction hardly comes as a surprise. The controversy in Newton is a microcosm of the simmering tensions in Greater Boston and other high-growth coastal cities over how to house a population surging as a result of a strong economy while also growing the stock of housing that’s accessible to low-income residents and linked to public transit. In theory, there’s not much disagreement that this region needs more housing, at just about every income level, or else housing prices will continue to rise and growth will sprawl farther and farther out into the suburbs. But when it comes to their own backyards, whether it’s in Newton or Dorchester, individual communities often perceive new buildings, and new residents, as a threat to their own quality of life.


The resulting spike in housing prices has put places like Newton even further out of reach for low-income residents and has exacerbated racial segregation. The city’s black and Latino populations are half the state averages. Not only would new housing help soak up some of the demand that’s now pushing up prices, but the city’s inclusionary zoning policy means a portion of new construction would be set aside for low-income families.

Because individual municipalities in Massachusetts have so much power over planning, zoning, and permitting, nobody is in charge of the big picture. Cities grow without making space for people to live. A big reason Greater Boston has stumbled into its housing crisis is that some towns and cities have historically deferred to knee-jerk opposition to development instead of weighing the broader environmental and economic impact of their choices. Newton’s embrace of the Washington Street plan will not alone be enough to pull Greater Boston out of the housing crisis, but it sets an example that other affluent suburbs ought to heed. And it points to the possibility that communities everywhere can become problem solvers instead of bystanders, and to chart their own future.