Almost a year ago, Governor Charlie Baker signed a historic economic development bond bill that made long-overdue changes to the state’s Zoning Act, including a new requirement for the 175 communities served by the MBTA to expressly allow multifamily housing. A recent Globe article showed that many communities are concerned about this new rule. Change is hard, but we see this legislation as an opportunity to create more equitable, accessible, and sustainable communities where everyone has a chance to thrive.
The impact and effectiveness of this new requirement will depend on guidance now under development and expected to be released for public comment this month. The forthcoming guidance will outline how municipalities can comply and therefore be eligible for a variety of state grants. This law could be a powerful tool to create new homes near transit in communities where it’s currently restricted. It can also improve the environment and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially those associated with transportation. And it can help redress the racial inequity and disparate impacts of longstanding housing policies that have excluded people from many communities. With some creativity and support from key stakeholders, the multifamily zoning requirement can advance all these objectives. We’ve identified five key principles that should be embodied in the guidelines:
Focus on creating new homes. Massachusetts needs to produce lots of new homes — at least 20,000 per year, according to the Baker administration — to accommodate demand and enable long-term economic growth. To meet the need, the guidelines should evaluate zoning based on the number of new homes that could feasibly be built. While we applaud communities that have had multifamily zoning on the books for many years, our need for new homes continues to grow. Allowing already built-out districts to count toward satisfying the requirements of the new law would undercut efforts to ensure every community is doing its part to meet demand and provide homes for current and future residents.
Tailor requirements for local conditions. Understanding that every municipality is unique, the guidelines should set targets specific to each community, based on information about its particular constraints, opportunities, and obligations. To help address the state’s housing, transportation, and racial equity needs, the guidelines should require, at minimum, more zoning capacity (the potential for more homes) in communities that have more developable land near transit, better transit access to jobs, and a history of exclusionary zoning practices that have prohibited the variety of housing types our residents need. A predictable formula using information specific to each community will help avoid confusion and help design the new zoning district that works best for them. Each community must do its part, and this specific, yet tailored, approach will ensure a collective response to our collective responsibility.
Ensure new development is truly transit-oriented. Households who live near frequent and connected transit own fewer cars, drive less, and emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions than their counterparts with less access to transit. That’s why the law specifically requires multifamily zones to be within one-half mile of a transit station in communities that have one. The guidelines can do even more to ensure new zoning is designed to promote sustainable transportation. In communities with a transit station, new zoning districts should be located where people can safely walk to the station, and the guidelines should discourage the provision of excess parking that leads to more auto ownership and driving. In all communities, the guidelines should encourage zoning that contributes to “15-minute neighborhoods,” where residents can walk to a coffee shop to meet a friend, pick up dinner at the local market, and where children can safely play in the neighborhood park.
Continue to prioritize equity and fair housing. The guidelines should ensure zoning advances inclusivity and meets the needs of protected classes, particularly racial and ethnic groups who have historically been excluded from many communities. Fair housing was clearly on the minds of the Legislature, since the law requires housing “suitable for families with children,” who are often zoned out of communities due to an intentional shortage of 3+ bedroom rental homes in many suburbs. The guidelines can play a role in fixing historical exclusion by providing incentives to develop affordable housing. For example, communities could get “extra credit” by adopting inclusionary zoning that requires developers to set aside some homes for residents with low and moderate incomes. Both the state and participating cities and towns must also work to ensure that the new zoning doesn’t create or worsen conditions for people in neighborhoods where housing instability and displacement are major issues.
Support municipalities and require transparency. With over 100 planning and rezoning processes on the horizon, it’s imperative to create strong shared resources, technical support, and an efficient review process to limit the burden of compliance on cities and towns. Standardized mapping resources and analysis tools can reduce the amount communities spend on consultants and can ensure that information about districts is comparable across municipalities. The guidelines should also establish digital submission requirements and data formats so that documentation of qualifying zones can be efficiently and transparently evaluated.
There’s never been a better moment to put Massachusetts on a path to housing equity, resilience, and sustainability. With the new MBTA multifamily zoning law, we have the opportunity to meet the growing demand for housing while ensuring our neighborhoods benefit everyone. Advocates, planners, and legislators alike have long argued that a failure to unlock additional housing opportunities, particularly near transit and in historically exclusive communities, could result in a depressed economy, increased inequity, disastrous climate impacts, and difficulty maintaining our competitive advantage as a state. Bold action to make the most of this rare opportunity can set us on the path to a more equitable, sustainable future in Massachusetts.
Tim Reardon is data services director at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council; Rachel Heller is CEO of the Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association; Jesse Kanson-Benanav is executive director of Abundant Housing Massachusetts.