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Housing Choice brings the biggest changes to Massachusetts zoning laws in decades

It was one of Gov. Baker’s biggest legislative priorities, and one of his biggest victories

State officials hope the zoning reforms in Housing Choice will bring about more multifamily housing in the suburbs, similar to this project under way in Mattapan. (David L Ryan/Globe Staff )David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Housing Choice became the law of the land only a month ago. But some municipal officials aren’t wasting any time putting it to use.

The Legislature went into overtime to finish an economic development bill that included Housing Choice. At stake: the biggest reform to state zoning laws in five decades. Housing Choice started with Governor Charlie Baker’s push to lower the threshold for a variety of local land-use votes, and evolved to include some related reforms and affordable-housing funds added by lawmakers along the way.

Here’s what it means in Arlington. A proposal to allow accessory apartments in one- and two-family homes will only need support from a simple majority of the 252-member Town Meeting this spring, instead of two-thirds of those voters. Another change would accommodate larger buildings, possibly some mixed-use with housing, in the town’s industrial zones — if more than half of Town Meeting members agree. Then there’s the multifamily overlay district that town officials are discussing near the Alewife MBTA station, because the new law requires them to do so.

Baker and his housing secretary, Mike Kennealy, must be hoping this sort of activity soon plays out across the state. Baker and Kennealy will assuredly address the law’s potential ramifications for badly needed housing production during a virtual bill-signing scheduled for Tuesday.


Before the snowy forecast prompted a switch, the event was supposed to happen in Salem. There’s a good reason for that: Salem has been Baker’s go-to city to show how the two-thirds majority requirement stymied local housing votes.

Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem said she is teeing up a new accessory apartment ordinance after the old one failed, twice, in separate 7-4 votes at the City Council. (At least Driscoll finally got the 8th vote she needed to allow housing in underused municipal and church buildings.) Driscoll is also eyeing a smart-growth zoning proposal for a 23-acre Salem State property near the Marblehead line that will enable the site to address community housing needs; she’ll only need seven votes now, instead of eight, to get that done.


This bill-signing event on Tuesday is only ceremonial. Baker didn’t waste any time before signing the actual bill last month, not after prodding lawmakers about this issue for three years.

He did veto two tenant-protection measures that lawmakers had added into the mix. But he also kept intact other additions: Cities and towns served by the MBTA now need to have at least one multifamily zoning district near a transit station or risk losing precious state grants, for example, and judges can now require neighbors to post a bond before appealing a housing project in court.

Efforts to get Housing Choice passed in 2018 came up short. The legislation apparently got caught between two camps: those who thought it went too far, and those who thought it didn’t go far enough.

Baker seemed bullish about its prospects at the start of the new two-year session, in 2019, when he began a more aggressive push. He and his top aides traversed the state that year to stump for the bill, from Williamstown to Provincetown — a veritable Housing Choice Palooza. Yes, there were even tour T-shirts.

But the bill still seemed stuck in a legislative quagmire, even after Kennealy personally met with more than 100 state lawmakers. Some community leaders worried the bill would lead to overdevelopment, while activists wanted more affordability and tenant protections.


Baker and his aides kept at it. They rarely missed a chance to talk it up. Senator Eric Lesser, the cochairman of the Legislature’s economic development committee, recalls one time he was sitting next to Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito at a funeral in January 2020. Polito asked Lesser about Housing Choice. Lesser said he suggested the administration file it as part of a broader economic development bill — the kind of legislation that would be bound to pass.

Kennealy said he had heard that suggestion from several people before doing exactly that in March, right before the COVID-19 pandemic upended everyone’s lives. The need for more housing, meanwhile, became more pronounced. The virus and how it spread underscored the great divide between the haves and have-nots. The region’s already sky-high home prices continued to soar.

However, even the economic development bill, and all the state funds it could unlock, didn’t provide an ironclad guarantee. Baker expressed nervousness about Housing Choice’s fate in the last week of 2020. Time was running out, with no sign of a House-Senate agreement on the broader bill. One finally emerged in the final nerve-racking hours of the two-year session.

Lesser said support for Housing Choice grew over time. The protests over racial inequity, he said, helped underscore the apparent hypocrisy displayed in some towns where Black Lives Matter signs dot the lawns but multifamily housing remains impossible to build. And he said housing advocates who were at odds over how far Housing Choice should go also coalesced around getting something done.


The multifamily zoning requirement of MBTA communities was one such matter up for debate. Senator Brendan Crighton, the lead person in the Senate on housing issues, had pushed for that reform, among others. His colleagues in the Senate backed him on it.

The Senate also wanted the two-thirds threshold dropped for local votes around inclusionary-zoning rules, which require housing developers to set aside a portion of their units at affordable prices. That concept didn’t survive the House-Senate negotiations. Crighton said he expects to renew the push for that reform, alongside some of the tenant protections that got lost in the shuffle, during the new session.

Baker also vetoed language in the economic development bill that would have delayed Housing Choice by 90 days. Instead, the housing reforms took effect immediately. Baker didn’t want to wait any longer. After three years of lobbying, and one statewide tour, it’s hard to blame him.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.