Mandate lacks power to ensure affordability
The Globe’s May 5 editorial on new zoning mandates being imposed on 175 communities in the MBTA region ignores very real flaws that must be fixed (“Baker’s housing law is ruffling suburban feathers. Good.”).
The legislation is one-sided, handing private developers “as of right” power to build housing projects of up to 15 units per acre in state-mandated zones, while denying municipalities the authority they need to manage the impact of large-scale growth on neighborhoods.
Using a feeble supply-side economic theory, the law as currently written promises something that won’t be delivered: affordability. The law denies cities and towns the key tool they need to make sure that the new units are affordable — inclusionary zoning, which is the power to require a certain percentage of new units to be affordable to moderate- and low-income households.
Developers are motivated by profit, and they will exploit their newfound advantage by advancing high-end housing. We predict that overall affordability will not improve as a result. Further, this as-of-right development power could pose a threat to already-dense working-class communities because developers would be able to use the law to convert existing multifamily properties into higher-end (and more profitable) housing, displacing existing tenants who would not be able to stay in their neighborhoods.
Cities and towns need a balanced law that provides them with the authority to hold private developers accountable to affordability and make sure that projects don’t overwhelm existing neighborhoods. We need to empower local officials, not tie their hands.
Massachusetts Municipal Association
It’s well past time to right the wrongs of exclusive communities
Kudos to the Globe for the strong statement in support of more inclusive housing policies in the suburban communities served by the MBTA (“Baker’s housing law is ruffling suburban feathers. Good.”). As the Globe rightly points out, the exclusive policies limiting housing in our communities are not a law of nature. These zoning laws were enacted in the 20th century, and despite protestations to the contrary, I think they were put in place, in most cases, to create racial, ethnic, and class barriers.
It is well past time to begin righting these wrongs. We need more housing, especially in prosperous suburban communities that are served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. We need to provide housing and wealth-building opportunities to historically excluded people of color and others. We also need to build multifamily housing near transit to reduce our carbon footprint as a society. People who care about climate and about racial justice should join the movement for inclusive housing policies in all of our communities.
Bob Van Meter
Acton Housing for All
State’s sweeping effort bumps up against the problem of economics
Regarding your editorial about Governor Baker’s housing law, I have been following the efforts to ameliorate the perceived shortage of affordable housing in the Boston area by tinkering with the zoning in the various cities and towns. I have some observations to make about this effort.
Zoning is not a tool that itself will either accomplish the goal of more affordable housing or create more housing stock. The underlying problem is economics.
▪ Land in the Boston area, because we live in such a desirable part of the country, is very expensive.
▪ Construction of housing is inherently expensive
▪ The market for housing, for better or worse, is oriented toward upscale, spacious homes or multiunit construction, in the form of rental or condominium units. That’s what sells.
▪ Developers expend a great deal of money, at substantial risk, to build housing.
▪ Developers expect to make a profit, and deservedly so.
Housing is expensive. Creating zones, 50 contiguous acres in size (difficult in many cities and towns), and requiring them to be zoned at a substantial density, will not increase the supply of affordable housing.
If the goal is to make housing more affordable and inclusive, there are very difficult economic issues to solve. But that goal will not come about simply by unilaterally imposing zoning as the governor’s law requires.
The writer is an architect who principally has worked with developers.
More and more people want single-family homes
Spurred on by the pandemic, people are leaving congested metropolitan Boston for homes (and regions) that offer more space and less density. Yet the state’s “MBTA Community” mandate does not promote the construction of the homes that are in greatest demand: single-family or two-family houses. More and more New Englanders desire the single-family home. With cheaper land and construction costs farther out of the city, we could provide incentives and support small-scale builders and tradespeople to help outlying communities improve, rather than encouraging developers to build cookie-cutter multifamily buildings.
We need to allow our cities and towns to implement their own visions as individual communities with unique needs and to decide whether, and how, to increase their quantity of housing.
One good start would be revitalizing smaller outlying cities, such as Fitchburg, Springfield, New Bedford, and Lowell, and their environs. Incentives and lending programs could provide financing options so that people from all walks of life could be encouraged to achieve their dream of owning a house of their own.
The writer is an architect.
Boston’s tiny footprint doesn’t help
The near suburbs of Boston would be part of the city anywhere else in the country. Instead, they try to maintain that they are the independent country towns they were in the 19th century rather than wealthy suburbs that exist in that form only because of the economic powerhouse that is modern Boston.
At about 50 square miles, Boston is one of the smallest major cities in the United States, less than one-third of the area of the average major city of the Northeast, and far smaller compared to the major cities of the South and West, which are typically hundreds of square miles. Even if just the 14 municipalities adjoining Boston were part of the city, about 200 square miles would be subject to Boston zoning, which would go a long way toward solving the housing crisis, both affordable and higher-end.
The least the suburbs can do is build a handful of multiunit buildings around train stations.
Christopher C. Binns
Your message to suburbanites: Get with the program, or else
The tone of your editorial is nothing less than a threat to the suburbs, since it essentially says: Capitulate, suburbanites. You’ve had it too good for too long. Roll over now and abandon your downtown zoning to allow developers to come in “by right,” or the governor and Legislature will roll over you later.
You write, “Instead of complaining about a mild law” — one, I’d add, that would dramatically change the character and look of a 375-year-old town, increase its population almost overnight by 10 percent or more, and put an untold burden on its infrastructure — “towns should accept the responsibilities to the common good. . . . 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.”
This is democracy?
In this polarized political environment, the thinking is too much “ready, shoot, aim,” with little consideration given to the consequences of the proposed action. Can meaningful, substantive issues be satisfactorily resolved by a dictum from on high without public dialogue?
The people of Massachusetts rejected the dictates of a faraway ruler in 1775. This is no different.
John C. Jay