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After towns protest, Baker administration scales back housing rules around MBTA

Changes would trim about 60,000 units from what’s required under new zoning rules, but advocates hope they’ll encourage more towns to take part

State officials this week finalized rules designed to create more housing close to MBTA stations.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The Baker administration has pared back the multifamily zoning required of many communities along and around the MBTA system after smaller towns complained of a one-size-fits-all approach to interpreting a new housing law.

Earlier this year, officials in dozens of communities criticized the proposed “MBTA Communities” rules, which mandate new multifamily zoning in some 175 cities and towns across eastern Massachusetts, issued by the state Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development. They expressed fears of being overwhelmed by development that could cripple their waste water systems, roads, schools, or other critical municipal services.

In the final rules issued Wednesday, the agency takes a more nuanced approach, particularly trimming requirements for smaller towns with no train stations. Those towns would be exempt from a rule mandating at least 50 acres zoned for multifamily units and as a result could get by with as few as 53 such units, in the case of tiny Plympton. The 50-acre minimum would remain for about two-thirds of cities and towns.

Overall, the changes would reduce the minimum number of multifamily units allowed as of right in these zones across the MBTA catchment area by about 18 percent, to 283,500, from 344,100 in the initial version.

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Housing advocates praised the revisions, even though fewer units would be built over time, particularly in the rural corners of the MBTA system.

“Focusing on the places where you can genuinely produce more transit-oriented housing is the right policy outcome,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.

The changes will bring considerable relief to places like Nahant, a town of 3,300 surrounded by water where mandatory zoning could have increased its housing stock by more than 40 percent. Nahant’s town administrator, Tony Barletta, said the changes satisfied concerns raised by local officials like him. Nahant, which has about 1,700 homes today, now falls into a new category for small towns that border municipalities with train stations (Lynn, in Nahant’s case). The minimum number of multifamily units to be allowed there under this new zoning drops to 84 from a proposed 750.

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These zoning reforms stem from a bill Governor Charlie Baker pushed for several years called Housing Choice, aimed at making it easier for cities and towns to make major land-use decisions related to housing by requiring only a simple majority vote instead of two-thirds. When they passed that bill in early 2021, lawmakers added the MBTA Communities provision. Baker, who has made housing one of his top priorities, then signed it, over the objections of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

The details, issued in draft rules the Baker administration released in December, caught many town officials off guard. The law required each “MBTA community” to have a multifamily zone of “reasonable size,” with at least 15 units per acre, within a half mile of a transit stop where applicable. The administration initially defined this “reasonable size” as at least 50 acres across the board, with more aggressive multifamily zoning requirements in many communities based on the level of transit access and the number of existing homes. Objections poured in from local officials who worried that more apartments and condos would be built than their towns could handle.

Mike Kennealy, Baker’s housing and economic development secretary, clearly took some of these protests to heart.

On Wednesday, Kennealy and undersecretary Jennifer Maddox outlined new changes in the final version of the rules. The agency eliminated the “bus service” category, and many of those former bus towns — Westwood, for example — shifted into the less demanding “commuter rail” category. The minimum land area requirement was eliminated for all towns with fewer than 7,000 people, or 500 residents per square mile. Multifamily zoning would be capped so the housing stock couldn’t grow by more than 25 percent. And flexibility was given to communities without sufficient developable land near the stations.

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Communities with rapid transit service now have until the end of 2023 to update their zoning, while commuter rail towns and larger adjacent towns have until the end of 2024. The smallest towns without train stations have until the end of 2025.

Despite the concessions, housing advocates say it’s a big step toward addressing a housing crisis that has made Massachusetts one of the most expensive places to live in the US.

“Implementing this will help to shape a much brighter future for the commonwealth,” said Rachel Heller, chief executive of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. “While I’d like for communities to be zoning for more homes, I think it’s important that we get started. There are real numbers that we set here. This is critical to planning for our future.”

Randy Block, president of RightSize Newton, had criticized the original rules, arguing they unfairly hammered smaller towns as well as some densely populated cities. Block noted that the administration addressed the concerns raised by the former group, but is still requiring many cities to impose zoning that could increase their housing stock by 25 percent.

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And Block said he’s skeptical the measure will do much to address the high cost of housing in Greater Boston. “To think this legislation is actually going to cause a reduction in the average cost of housing in the Boston area, that’s just a pipe dream,” he said.

Another big question remains: How many of these 175 cities and towns, which stretch from Ashburnham to Bourne, will actually adopt the new zoning? Some have floated the idea of skipping it and facing the penalty: being shut out of the state’s MassWorks and Housing Choice grant programs. Housing advocates hope the new changes might help convince some towns to participate, but there are still concerns that they could simply forego those grant funds, which typically do not represent substantial parts of any municipal budget.

“I think it was a good step,” said Greg Vasil, chief executive of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “Let’s see if we can get it to work.”


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him @jonchesto.