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Is the state’s multi-family zoning requirement in MBTA communities good policy?

Read two views and vote in our online poll.


Adam Chapdelaine

Former Arlington town manager; president, Metropolitan Area Planning Council; Dedham resident

Adam ChapdelaineJoan Roman

Growing up in a three-decker in Fall River, I was fortunate to experience the benefits of life in a community with mostly multifamily housing. It is my hope that the new law requiring MBTA communities to zone for multi-family housing near transit stations can expand opportunities like this throughout Greater Boston.

There are three reasons the new law’s requirements make good public policy.

First, it is a clear acknowledgement of the scope of the housing crisis facing Greater Boston, which to meet demand needs 300,000+ new units over 2010 levels by 2040. The region is growing due to continued economic expansion, and with that comes jobs and the people who fill them. Providing housing options for these families, along with ensuring that families currently living in Greater Boston are not displaced, will require the creation of new units. As this is a regional challenge, the solutions must be broad-based, and opportunity must be provided throughout the region. The new policy recognizes this and provides a regional framework for addressing the projected housing shortfall.

Second, the new policy is not a construction mandate, but a mandate for zoning allowances that can offer expanded opportunities to build homes. No municipality would be forced to build units on any specific timeline — or even build them at all. Instead, MBTA communities would need to remove existing zoning — such as large lot or single-family requirements — that are a barrier to multifamily housing near transit facilities, and replace them with zoning allowing for that development. Any changes resulting from the law would occur over many years, allowing communities to grow and change along with the region.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the new law makes it clear that housing policy is climate policy. If the region grows as projected, it cannot sustain a corresponding number of vehicles added to local roadways. That would only exacerbate already challenging congestion, and increase carbon emissions at a time we are desperately trying to reduce them. Building housing in reasonable proximity to transit will provide residents lower-carbon transportation options and help the region meet its climate goals.


The new law provides a starting pathway for addressing our burgeoning housing crisis at a time when action can no longer wait.


Randall Block

President of the community organization Right Size Newton

Randall Block

The state has developed a deceptively simple strategy to solve the housing crisis — just require MBTA communities to build denser housing. Guidelines developed by the state Department of Housing and Community Development apply a one-size-fits-all formula for determining the increased number of housing units required of each of the 175 MBTA communities. This approach shows a total lack of understanding of the issues facing cities and towns.

Let’s consider two examples.

Chelsea has 40,787 residents living in 14,554 housing units on 2.2 square miles of land. One of the most crowded cities in Massachusetts, Chelsea is also an “environmental justice” city facing rising sea level and urban heat-island effects. How many more housing units do our brilliant policy makers think Chelsea should add? 3,639, for an increase of 25 percent. Did they stop to think for a moment that Chelsea has little or no vacant land that can be developed? Did they stop to think that perhaps Chelsea is already overcrowded? Instead of making it even denser, we should help the city create open spaces to cope with climate change impacts.


Now let’s consider the small town of Nahant, which has 3,334 residents living in 1,680 housing units on one square mile of land. The experts at DHCD decided the minimum number of additional housing units required for any MBTA community would be 750. This would be a 45 percent increase in housing units in Nahant. Not only would that destroy the town as we know it, but the terrain is such that it’s probably not feasible. Fortunately, such a zoning change would never be approved at Town Meeting — more proof that DHCD policy makers are out of touch with reality.

The current administration has misdiagnosed the problem. The “housing crisis” is really a “housing cost crisis” which will not be remedied by building more market-rate housing that happens to be near an MBTA station. To help families with below-average income, we need more housing in communities where land is available and affordable. And we need to raise revenues to subsidize the housing that is built. The only sensible course is to throw out the state’s mandatory zoning scheme and start over.

As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact laidler@globe.com.

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