A year ago, Arlington Town Meeting approved a law that gave homeowners the right to build so-called in-law apartments, a change Governor Charlie Baker had made easier for communities across the state to consider.
For affordable housing advocates, it was a modest victory. But coming after several failed attempts, it felt like a breakthrough, and in June of this year a more sweeping measure came before Town Meeting: rewriting decades-old zoning rules to allow construction of more two-family homes.
In a politically liberal suburb where surging housing prices have squeezed out many residents, the timing seemed ideal. If such a measure couldn’t pass in Arlington, some wondered, where could it pass?
But after fierce debate, residents rejected the measure, by a divisive 112-113 vote. Those who said no were conflicted over how multi-unit development would affect the character of a town dominated by high-priced single-family homes, and the rejection sent dispirited proponents back to the drawing board.
“Things need to change,” lamented Barbara Thornton, a city planner and Town Meeting member who voted for the new zoning regulation. “We need to make some changes in our zoning in order to meet the needs of the 21st century.”
The vote in Arlington, located 10 miles northwest of Boston, provides a ground-level view of the Gordian knot at the heart of the region’s seemingly intractable housing crisis, a disaster that is among the most urgent problems the next governor must tackle. Home prices have soared to record highs: Those in Greater Boston registered a new peak in June, when the median selling price of a single-family home hit $900,000 for the first time. Such prices lock out many who would like to secure a slice of the American Dream but are finding fewer communities where they can afford to buy.
Fixing that crisis requires more construction, and yet municipalities — like Arlington — remain largely unwilling to allow new development when the decision is left to them.
What the state needs, according to housing advocates, is a governor with a bolder action plan. Yet solutions to this crisis are not being discussed enough on the campaign trail, they worry, even as public polls consistently rank affordable housing as a top concern for voters.
Baker, Massachusetts’ outgoing governor, was able to push through some policy changes in recent years. But advocates say the next governor should push harder for a statewide agenda, and to set out clearer guidelines for communities to follow. That includes getting Beacon Hill legislators on board.
“Arlington is a community that really values diversity, in all of its elements, and if its next [state] government values diversity in the state, the next governor is going to have to address housing and zoning,” Thornton said in a recent interview.
The calls for decisive action have been coming from city planners and urban policy analysts, as well as social justice activists and environmentalists, transportation enthusiasts who push for smart growth and business leaders focused on economic development. All agree that the state can do more to desegregate communities, bring more economic diversity to Boston’s suburbs, and create more places where average people can afford to live.
Could the state go as far as California, which wiped out zoning that barred high-density housing? Could Massachusetts follow Oregon and pass new restrictions on high rent increases, in tandem with a plan to increase the housing stock?
It’s either that, or many more residents could be priced out of local communities, advocates warn — seniors looking to stay in town and close to loved ones, young adults and families looking to buy their first home.
The need for change is urgent, housing experts say, amid a population boom in the Boston area driven by high-paying jobs in the thriving tech and software industries.
Low supply is the main reason prices in the region keep climbing: A national report a week ago found that Massachusetts has the 11th most severe “housing deficit” in the country, requiring more than 100,000 new housing units to meet demand.
Soaring costs mean a family needs to earn more than $181,000 to buy a typical house in Greater Boston, according to data compiled by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. That’s nearly twice the region’s median household income of $93,537.
Housing advocates praised Baker for his response to the crisis, while noting that it involved overcoming staunch resistance from local communities.
Last year, Baker signed a bill that lowered the voting threshold — no longer a two-thirds requirement, but rather a simple majority — for communities to bypass zoning laws that limited development. The law is intended to make it easier to build mixed-use and multifamily developments and enabled the addition of in-law apartments. But the final decision is still left to local voters.
Baker proposed spending an unprecedented $1 billion in pandemic relief aid last year on housing-related programs; the state Legislature reduced that amount to $600 million, a cut the governor decried.
The Baker administration is also in the process of crafting regulations to require certain communities with, or next to, MBTA stops —175 communities in all — to allow developers to build more multifamily housing around those stops. The regulations would also set a minimum number of units for each town. But suburban communities are already pushing back, concerned the forced zoning changes would alter their landscapes.
With decisions left to communities, the overall results have been mixed. In Wellesley, town officials last year halted plans for a multi-unit development on town-owned land near a train station — the kind Baker advocated for — while they gauge the impact of new private developments nearby. A community group, Rescue Wellesley Square, sprung up in opposition to the plan, concerned it would bring the “density of a major city to our downtown” and alter “the essence of Wellesley Square’s character.”
Even in Baker’s hometown of Swampscott, community groups have fiercely resisted a developer’s plan for an affordable housing project, although the zoning board recently signed off on the plans.
Despite local resistance, Baker has laid out a blueprint to boost local housing production, advocates say. But the next governor must do more.
“This is an amazing opportunity to actually put ourselves on the path to produce the homes that we need,” said Rachel Heller, head of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a statewide advocacy group.
The next governor will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact, with control over a budget and bond bill that could allow the state to build enough inventory to stabilize prices, an estimated 200,000 new homes by 2030, Heller said.
“Now is the time we can do something about this,” Heller said.
Dottie Fulginiti has seen the debate from both sides — as an economic recovery planner for the Old Colony Planning Council and as chairwoman of the Select Board in Easton — and believes progress is possible. Over the past decade, Easton has achieved its affordable housing goals “in a thoughtful way that drove economic development,” she said.
“The case needs to be made on why it’s in a town’s best interest,” she said. That means allowing homes that teachers and restaurant workers can afford, where grandparents can stay close to families.
Luc Schuster, senior director of Boston Indicators, a research project of the Boston Foundation, said it’s important for the next governor to take the lead, since some communities will be reluctant to cede the zoning autonomy the state gave them 50 years ago.
Since then, many towns have restricted developments to single-family homes, even on lots that could easily accommodate a triple-decker or a Brownstone building, architecture that once defined urban landscapes. Such zoning has long been seen as a way to exclude lower-income residents and families.
In Arlington, nearly 80 percent of land zoned for residential use is restricted to single-home developments. That now means only those who can afford a $1 million home can live there.
“There will be a limit on how much we can do if we keep hoping for town meetings to produce more housing out of the goodness of their own hearts,” Schuster said.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misspelled Luc Schuster’s last name. The Globe regrets the error.