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In Newton, proposal would end single-family only zoning in large swaths of city

Newton officials are considering a proposal to allow by-right multifamily construction near transit stops such as Waban Station on the Green Line.
Newton officials are considering a proposal to allow by-right multifamily construction near transit stops such as Waban Station on the Green Line.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff

For generations, the foundation of the nation’s suburbs has been built on the ideal of a single-family home with a backyard. But as Greater Boston faces a housing crisis, is it time for a change?

In Newton, where skyrocketing housing costs push the median home price above $1 million, officials are exploring whether to end exclusively single-family home construction in up to more than half of the city’s residential areas, and allow denser development near train stations and other transit stops.

The concept, labeled by Councilor-at-Large Marc Laredo as a “major departure” from Newton’s current zoning, would allow by-right multifamily construction on lots now zoned only for single-family homes in the vicinity of the MBTA Commuter Rail, Green Line, and bus stops throughout the city.

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Susan Albright, the City Council president, said the rezoning would make it easier for homeowners and developers to create a wider range of options, including more two- and three-family homes, and offer lower-cost housing for people who currently can’t afford to live in Newton. Currently, builders in those areas have to seek a special permit from the City Council to build multiunit housing.

“I grew up in Newton, you could move to Newton with a modest salary. You can’t do that now,” Albright said. “By increasing the number of homes here, we increase the chance to get in.”

But critics, including Councilor Emily Norton, said it would merely loosen restrictions on development and make it easier to create pricey housing in local neighborhoods.

“Creating more market-rate housing in Newton will not create more affordable housing in Newton,” Norton said. “Left to their own devices, [developers] will make very expensive housing.”

The City Council’s Zoning & Planning Committee is discussing the proposed rezoning, and is looking at residential areas within a half-mile of the train, subway, and express bus stops, as well as those a quarter-mile of local bus stops. It is part of a larger effort to draft an updated zoning ordinance for the city.

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“We are exploring, as one of many tools [to achieve] less expensive housing in our residential districts and more flexibility for homeowners, expanding multifamily districts within some distance of important public transit nodes,” said Councilor-at-Large Deborah Crossley, the chairwoman of the committee.

The areas being looked at for rezoning encompass 18,720 residential lots, including 13,433 lots zoned for single-family homes, according to Zachery LeMel, the chief of long-range planning for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

In Newton, there are 22,632 single- and multifamily residential lots across the city.

Crossley said committee members are exploring the multifamily concept as part of a draft zoning ordinance that will be presented at a public hearing in September or October. A final vote by councilors on any zoning changes is expected in the fall of 2021.

The effort to boost multiunit development has the support of the environmental group Green Newton and Engine 6, which advocates for affordable housing.

“We need to offer more than single-family homes in Newton, we need a range of options, so [buyers] can enter the housing market at different price points,” said Jay Walter, who serves on Green Newton’s advisory board, and is active with Engine 6.

Kathy Pillsbury, a member of Engine 6, said the change would make it easier for more people to walk to transit stops, and reduce energy usage.

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“We think it would be great to have more multifamily in the city, both for affordability and sustainability,” Pillsbury said.

Laredo, the city councilor, said in a recent newsletter he supports efforts to diversify housing stock, but doesn’t believe in making a change “without considerable thought and analysis and significant input from our entire community.”

Not everyone is convinced the move would lead to more lower-cost homes in Newton.

Randall Block, with the Newton Lower Falls Improvement Association, is concerned about the cost of market-rate units in some projects, like the mixed-use development on Austin Street. Affordable units at that project will bring some economic diversity to Newton, but its market-rate housing “is affordable only by the wealthy,” Block said in an e-mail.

“In order to achieve greater economic diversity in Newton, there will have to be a much more creative approach than the zoning redesign proposal,” he said.

In Newton, where the median sale price for a single-family home in June 2020 was about $1.3 million, according to Realtor.com, many have argued the city must do more to increase and diversify its housing stock.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, in 2018, joined a coalition of area mayors and pledged to boost the construction of new housing to help meet the region’s demand. In recent years, some construction has come as part of mixed-use developments, but several large projects have met with opposition over issues such as size and traffic impact.

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The divide in Newton over its housing issues could be illustrated by Albright and Norton. Both represent Ward 2 and were raised in Newton. In separate interviews, each talked about how the city’s economic diversity has fallen away as housing costs rose.

In broad strokes, they agree on the problem — but are split on the fix.

For Albright, the rezoning also could help serve as an alternative to the protracted debates that have surrounded development in recent years.

“Look at the fights over the large buildings. Wouldn’t it make more sense to integrate more people closer to transit, and solve the housing issues that we have?” Albright said. “Given the fights we have over it, this might be a better way.”

Norton pointed to the working class Newtonville neighborhood she grew up in. Now, she said, she was able to afford to live in Newtonville by purchasing her mother’s home and renting out a room to a tenant.

The city should look to government financial aid and nonprofit builders to proactively create the affordable housing that is needed, she said.

“I just think Newton needs to look beyond what private sector developers can do, and will do,” Norton said. “If we are going to change it, the government has to step in.”

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MORE MULTIFAMILY ZONING MAY BE AHEAD:

The areas being looked at for rezoning encompass 18,720 residential lots, including 13,433 lots zoned for single-family homes, according to Zachery LeMel, the chief of long-range planning for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

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That includes about 8,000 residential lots within a half-mile of Green Line and Commuter Rail stops. LeMel said 81 percent of lots close to the subway are zoned single-family only.

The Green Line’s D Branch stretches from Riverside station in Newton Lower Falls and crosses through Waban, Newton Highlands, Newton Centre, and Chestnut Hill.

About half of the lots near the city’s three Commuter Rail stations -- in Auburndale, West Newton, and Newtonville -- are single-family, he said.

MBTA Express Bus service -- which is concentrated on the city’s north side -- is within a half-mile of about 9,800 residential lots, he said. Eighty percent of them are zoned for single-family use only, though large areas of Nonantum and Newton Corner now allow multi-families, along with parts of Auburndale, West Newton, and Newtonville.

The MBTA’s Local Bus lines, which stretch from Nonantum to the north to Oak Hill Park at the southern tip of Newton, are within a quarter-mile of 8,500 residential lots. The city said its most recent analysis found 69 percent of those lots have single-family only zoning.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.