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Zoning measure would require municipalities to allow higher-density housing near MBTA stations

It’s unclear if Governor Baker will sign the bill, which many cities and towns oppose

The MBTA's Greenbush Line includes a stop in Hingham, one of the municipalities that hosts a T station but lacks high-density housing nearby.
The MBTA's Greenbush Line includes a stop in Hingham, one of the municipalities that hosts a T station but lacks high-density housing nearby.Rose Lincoln

For years, housing advocates have argued that one of the smartest ways to tackle Greater Boston’s housing crisis is to make cities and towns that are served by the MBTA build more housing near subway and train stations.

Last week, their wish was granted. At least for now.

Tucked into the 101-page economic development bill passed by the Legislature at the end of its session in the wee hours of Jan. 6 was a measure that would require municipalities served by the T to allow denser housing in at least one district near a station. It’s a measure that could eventually create thousands of apartments and condos in Boston-area suburbs, if it gets Governor Charlie Baker’s signature.

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“This would make a tremendous difference,” said Rachel Heller, CEO of the advocacy group Citizens Housing and Planning Association. “The biggest barrier to building in Massachusetts is zoning and the lack of zoning for multifamily housing. People want walkable neighborhoods, and this will help us produce them.”

The bill — which had previously been passed by the Senate but not the House — would require municipalities with an MBTA station or a ferry or bus terminal to create at least one district “of reasonable size” within a half-mile of a station where multifamily housing could be built without any special permits.

It’s not likely to be an issue in cities such as Boston, Cambridge, and Quincy, where apartment buildings have sprouted along the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s main transit lines for years. But a number of cities and towns served by commuter rail have few if any apartment or condo buildings, or land zoned for them. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council counted 38 — including Canton, Hingham, Weston, and Wilmington — that have MBTA stations but no land near them zoned densely enough to meet the requirements of the law.

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They would have to change that, or risk losing access to state infrastructure and housing grants, if the measure becomes law.

It’s a fair trade, said Senator Joe Boncore, a Winthrop Democrat who was one of the measure’s original sponsors. Suburban towns benefit from being on the regional transportation network, he said, so they should contribute to tackling the regional housing shortage.

“We have a situation where about 10 municipalities have produced two-thirds of the multifamily housing in the state,” Boncore said. “More cities and towns need to contribute and do their part, and transit-oriented development is the smartest way to do that.”

Not everyone agrees.

On Thursday, the influential Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns, urged Baker to veto the measure, saying it overrides the local control that communities in Massachusetts have long held over their own zoning. Mandates from Beacon Hill are no way to build, wrote the association’s executive director, Geoff Beckwith.

“Sustainable development depends on a localized approach that allows for growth that fits and works,” Beckwith wrote. “New laws won’t work if they strip average citizens of their role and voice.”

Baker has until Jan. 16 to either sign the economic development bill as is, or send sections back to the Legislature. That would amount to a veto on those sections, because lawmakers already have begun their new session, and a veto would require the legislative process to begin anew. The governor has generally resisted zoning mandates on cities and towns, preferring instead measures such as his Housing Choice Act, which won the municipal association’s support by allowing its member communities to vote on whether they want denser housing. But he has also set an ambitious target for housing production, calling for 135,000 new units by 2025. Housing advocates are hopeful he’ll see this plan as a way to help reach that goal.

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“We have a great need for more housing in this state, and the governor knows that,” Heller said.

A Baker administration spokesman said the governor’s office is reviewing the bill and had no other comment.

Advocates contend the multifamily mandate dovetails neatly with Housing Choice, which Baker spent three years pushing and which also passed the Legislature last week. That measure would lower the percentage of votes required to approve a variety of zoning changes ― including to build transit-oriented housing ― from two-thirds of a city council or town meeting to a simple majority.

That would make it easier to decide where apartment and condo buildings might be built, said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a state nonprofit that finances affordable housing.

And along with $50 million in new funding for transit-oriented affordable housing, cities and towns could better plan how to build around train stations, he said, and have an easier time putting those plans into action.

“We just can’t make it so difficult to get things done,” Ziegler said. “This opens up a lot of possibilities.”

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Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.