The suburbs are restless. Governor Charlie Baker signed a law in 2021 that required many towns in Greater Boston to allow more housing, part of an effort to reduce staggering housing costs in the Commonwealth and begin reversing racial segregation in Massachusetts. Since then, the administration has drafted regulations codifying the new law that would require 175 municipalities to zone at least 50 acres of land where developers would be allowed to build multifamily housing, and set minimum number of units for each town.
Municipalities that don’t comply would lose access to some types of state grant funding. And so, as Catherine Carlock and Jon Chesto reported in the Globe last week, the wailing has commenced, with comments pouring into the state from Ipswich to Plympton; Hamilton to Nahant. It’s hardly surprising that suburbs would resist new housing; after all, it’s the last century of restrictive zoning in the suburbs that has created the housing shortage in Massachusetts in the first place. But the Baker administration shouldn’t go wobbly now. The housing law is needed just as badly now as it was in 2021 — if not more so.
The median price for a single family home in Greater Boston shot up almost 10 percent in a year to $789,500, according to the Greater Boston Association of Realtors, with condo prices not far behind. Those kind of prices put crushing burdens on young families, threaten the state’s economic competitiveness, and exacerbate residential racial segregation. The fundamental problem is that there’s not enough new housing to go around, and a big reason why is because towns make it so difficult to build more.
For most of the Commonwealth’s history, individual towns lacked such power to thwart the broader public good. Residential zoning was unheard of, and landowners would have responded to a shortage like the one that Massachusetts is experiencing now by building more housing to meet demand. To compete on costs, they might have built on smaller lots or with multifamily structures like Boston’s iconic triple-deckers. Indeed, one of the ironies of the claim that towns need restrictive zoning to protect their “characters” is that so much of the charm of Massachusetts — the dignified Victorians, brick townhouses, and rambling farms — dates to a time when no rules required it.
In the early 20th century, though, legislatures and courts began to allow zoning restrictions. In Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court held that limiting homes to one-acre lots was an acceptable infringement on private property rights, because rules requiring large lots might help suppress fires, give children safer places to play, and “perhaps be more inducement for one to attempt something in the way of the cultivation of flowers, shrubs, and vegetables.” All the shrubbery in the leafy suburbs, though, came at a cost the court failed to consider: By letting towns bar cheaper housing, they also let them bar people with lower incomes — paving the way for the intensely segregated region we live in now.
Restrictive zoning has also become an environmentally unsustainable practice. Large lot, single family zoning pushes development further and further away from Boston, and away from mass transit. The 2021 law applies only to communities in Eastern Massachusetts that have access to MBTA service, and requires that multifamily zones be near transit, in an effort to steer development to smarter locations.
It may take years to make the suburbs more equitable and more environmentally sustainable and unwind the effects of exclusionary zoning. But Baker’s legislation, which also made it easier for towns to relax zoning on their own initiative, is at least a start. Finding 50 acres (less than a tenth of a square mile) in which to allow multifamily zoning is a reasonable expectation. Instead of complaining about such a mild law, towns should accept the responsibilities to the common good that so many of them have spent the last century shirking. After all, if this effort fails, there are plenty of harsher options a future Legislature or governor could consider. The state gave municipalities the power to zone; it can also take it away.
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