Everyone should do their part.
That was the thinking behind the ambitious housing legislation that Massachusetts lawmakers passed just over a year ago.
The basic idea: require suburbs where the single-family home reigns supreme to do more to help address the housing shortage. The legislation mandates new multifamily zones in 175 cities and towns, known as “MBTA Communities” because they have a subway, commuter rail, bus, or ferry station, or neighbor a town that does. It sets the stage for potentially hundreds of thousands of new apartments and condos to be built across Eastern Massachusetts in the coming years.
Simple on paper. Tougher in real life. As Governor Charlie Baker’s administration drafts rules for how the law will be implemented, more than five dozen communities are balking at the new requirements, according to letters they’ve submitted in recent weeks to the state that were obtained through a public records request.
In Hamilton, for example, officials warned that “community character will be severely compromised and likely degraded by poorly designed, cheaply-built projects that are incongruous with the community.” Topsfield officials say more homes would eventually mean hiring four new police officers and six new firefighters. In Nahant and Ipswich, the fear is that roads and schools could be overwhelmed.
Then there are communities such as the South Shore town of Plympton, where the co-chairs of the open space committee asked to be exempt entirely, citing, in a letter, the town’s lack of developable land, school space, and infrastructure.
Not complying with the law puts communities at risk of losing out on state grant programs such as MassWorks, which provides hundreds of thousands of dollars, and sometimes millions, toward utility and street improvements. Also at risk: grants of up to $250,000 from the state’s Housing Choice program, which MBTA Communities Watertown, Medway, and Swampscott, for example, have used for upgrades to bike and pedestrian paths.
Communities that embrace state housing guidelines can get extra points on grant applications. But, if they don’t meet the new zoning rules, they could be ineligible for any of that money.
“Rather than a carrot approach, it’s now a stick approach,” said Tina Cassidy, planning board director for the city of Woburn.
She pointed to another wrinkle. Woburn, Cassidy said, has approved 2,600 multifamily housing units in the past decade — 58 percent of which are near one of the city’s two train stations. But they don’t count under the rules as currently written, she says, because they were approved through special permits, not standard town zoning.
“It seems that the work we have been doing locally — some of us for years — seems to not be recognized as part of the new law,” Cassidy said.
The 175 communities covered by the law stretch from Fitchburg to Bourne, from Salisbury to Seekonk. (Two communities, Boston and Avon, are exempt) The law says these districts should be within a half-mile of a transit station, where applicable.
In writing guidelines for the law, the Baker administration defined “reasonable size” as no fewer than 50 acres in each community and set a minimum number of multifamily units for each town, based on the level of transit access and amount of existing homes in the community.
The 50-acre minimum irked many municipal officials, according to the Globe’s review of comment letters, since it could allow for at least 750 new units even in small communities without commuter rail stations of their own such as Holliston, or Groton. And, many towns would have to build much more under the new law, double or triple that amount, depending if they have subway, bus, or commuter rail service, or if the nearest station is in the next town over. Newton, for instance, with its Green Line service, would need to zone for more than 8,300 multifamily units.
Most officials who wrote in to complain took issue with at least one of these minimums, saying their communities are ill-equipped to handle the scale of development the new zoning would permit. In some towns, if the maximum amount were actually built, the housing stock could grow by 25 percent or more; on the tiny peninsula of Nahant, the number of homes could swell by nearly 50 percent. Some also noted that there is no requirement that any of the housing be income-restricted at affordable prices.
Rosemary Kennedy, a Hamilton select board member, felt strongly enough that she wrote a personal letter, in addition to the one submitted by the town, warning that unreasonable density would hurt the town’s ability to provide basic services to its citizens.
“It is unfair and will destroy the well-being of our community,” Kennedy added.
Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership advocacy group, says these fears are overblown. He contends the legislation is a blueprint for future development — especially in areas where land surrounding train stations isn’t well-utilized — not an explicit requirement to build the maximum amount. He notes it steers far more development to locations with high levels of T service, paving the way to put more housing where people and jobs are already concentrated.
“Local zoning over the years has tended to really strongly discourage multifamily and encourage sprawl and large single-family lots,” Ziegler said. “The idea that communities are being required to build X hundred or X thousand is just not true.”
Ziegler argues the state has built far too little housing for far too long, a major reason home prices here are among the costliest in the nation.
“The housing market pressure is going to be there with or without this new law,” Ziegler said. “All these growth issues are important long-term things that need attention.”
Concerns about stress on municipal budgets are real, but so is the housing crisis, said Adam Chapdelaine, the outgoing town manager in Arlington.
“It’s been irrefutable for a long time, but continues to become increasingly irrefutable, that the region is suffering from a housing crisis and we need to be open to many different solutions for addressing housing affordability,” Chapdelaine said. “I don’t think we’re in a position where we could be rejecting solutions, or potential solutions, given the dire nature of the crisis.”
Officials in the Baker administration say that they came up with the 50-acre minimum by drawing a circle with a half-mile radius around transit stations, calculating that the area spanned about 500 acres. The minimum district size was designed to be one-tenth of that area. In most of the 175 municipalities, state officials said, 50 acres represent less than 1 percent of their total land area. The goal of a district of this size is to encourage long-term, neighborhood-scale planning, instead of using zoning to approve projects on a site-by-site basis.
That the debate is heating up now, more than a year after being finalized by the Legislature, reflects the length of time it took for the Baker administration to draft the proposed rules and to begin soliciting input.
The legislation that contained the zoning rules also includes Baker’s “Housing Choice” proposal, which reduced the voting threshold needed for towns to change zoning for new housing. While the MBTA mandate wasn’t a priority of Baker’s, he resisted calls by the powerful Massachusetts Municipal Association to veto it when lawmakers included it in last year’s economic development bill.
State officials stress the legislation pertains to zoning alone, and is not a mandate to build or produce new housing units. They’re now reviewing the feedback from the cities and towns, as well as business and advocacy groups.
“The Administration has made clear that it intends to take a thoughtful approach in developing compliance criteria in accordance with the new law,” a state spokesperson said in an e-mail to the Globe.
One thing nearly everyone agrees on: Massachusetts faces a housing crisis, and needs to build more. But how, and where, gets very tricky, said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. He said putting towns on the defensive could hurt the cause.
“To get communities to build this stuff, I think there really has to be a give and take,” Vasil said. “The communities don’t have to play along. … Unless you have the communities embrace some of this stuff, they’re going to fight you tooth and nail, and you lose.”