Sometimes in city government it’s the little things that count. A tweak here or there to Boston’s 58-year-old zoning code and just maybe some of those thousands of much-needed new housing units get built — where they are needed, for people who need them now, not a decade or two from now.
And in the process Boston gets to be not just a bigger city — Mayor Michelle Wu’s aim is to grow to 800,000 by 2030 from just over 650,000 today — but a better city, a city that recognizes the diversity of its neighborhoods and its people, and the need to help residents grow generational wealth.
“Our zoning code should be the representation of the needs of our community, and where the city should and how the city should be growing,” Wu told the Globe editorial board.
For the city’s chief of planning, James Arthur Jemison, that means producing 38,000 new units of housing by 2030, which would require the permitting of some 4,700 new units a year — or nearly a thousand more than the city is currently permitting. To do that, Jemison and his team will have to clear away a thicket of regulations in the way small building projects are handled, requiring fewer to go through the often torturous Zoning Board of Appeals route.
High on that list are accessory dwelling units, those so-called granny or in-law units that can turn a two-family house into a three-family, to either accommodate another generation of the family or provide the kind of income-producing unit that allows a retiree to stay in her home in a neighborhood she loves.
One such woman who agreed to be interviewed but not identified because her case is still pending wanted simply to create a small, livable unit for her own use from what is currently an attic. That would allow her to rent out two units. She didn’t need the 1,300 square feet she had been living in and was willing to trade that for some financial security. She began the process in the summer of 2020 — went through four community meetings, had no neighborhood opposition, went through the ZBA, which ordered a design review by the Boston Planning and Development Agency — yes, the same agency that reviews major projects like Millennium Place — which demanded changes she estimated would add $30,000 to the cost and added about 14 months of negotiations to the process. Actual construction is still not underway.
“They should be able to fix this,” she told the Globe.
The record suggests that few homeowners are willing to endure the hassle of dealing with the ZBA and that cutting the board out of the process is key to getting more ADUs. .
Last year, Jemison said, the city permitted only 31 ADUs; 29 didn’t require ZBA approval because they fell within existing exemptions.
Jemison wants to increase that number to between 200 and 300 a year, starting by fixing the zoning code for Mattapan and then for Hyde Park, which has the added advantage of allowing families in two of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods to “build generational wealth.”
There are two paths to changing the city’s zoning codes — both for those accessory units and more broadly for many of the city’s “squares and corridors” — places like Glover’s Corner or Fields Corner in Dorchester or sections of East Boston — where the Wu administration wants to encourage development of housing along commercial corridors.
One of those paths would be the traditional neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach that the city has long taken to deal with zoning. The other — and far bolder — approach would be a citywide change that would, for example, allow permitting of a backyard granny unit without the need for a ZBA check-off. Surely if Jemison wants the production of those units to be in the triple digits annually, rather than the paltry 31 permitted last year, it’s definitely time to go bold.
Streamlining the review process for those squares and commercial corridors but going citywide is, as Jemison put it, “a tough conversation” because this is, after all, Boston — a city of neighborhoods. And people in those neighborhoods want to know, “Is it going to be awesome? Is it going to be amazing?” he added.
Sure, everyone wants awesome. What’s not to like about awesome?
“It’s funny to say it starts with ‘as of right’ zoning and dealing with conformities in the zoning code,” Jemison told the editorial board. “But it actually does start there. … We’re hoping we’re going to keep folks in the city and have them reinvest in the places that they made so distinctive and unique over the years.”
There’s nothing sexy about zoning codes. No one takes to the streets to demand more granny units or in support of apartments above the local grocery or coffee shop that keeps a neighborhood buzzing. But it is where change and growth begin to happen — and it’s where this administration’s focus is spot-on.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.