Will Ken Burns make a documentary about the Lexington Town Meeting vote on its zoning code next week? Honestly, probably not. But while it may lack the drama of that other revolution launched in the tony Boston suburb, the vote could nonetheless be a critical step in combating one of the most pressing issues that Massachusetts is facing today: The ridiculously high cost of housing.
In 2021, the state Legislature passed a new law that required MBTA communities — that is, municipalities served by the T — to draw up new multifamily zoning districts in order to promote denser and more transit-oriented housing. And while many affected communities have been pushing back against the state, Lexington has proposed a change to its zoning code that, if passed by the Town Meeting next week, would ensure that it complies with the new state law and goes beyond its minimum rezoning requirements.
The thinking behind the MBTA communities law was simple: With the shortage of housing stock being a main contributor to skyrocketing rents in Greater Boston, building more residential units would, over time, put a downward pressure on market prices — an issue of supply and demand, in other words. And placing that new housing close to public transit would help address the region’s worsening traffic congestion on the roads.
There are two things that make Lexington stand out: First, the town is attempting to adopt the zoning changes mandated by the state well ahead of schedule. While the deadline to comply is the end of this year for communities served by rapid transit, it’s not until the end of 2024 for those that are either directly served by the commuter rail or, like Lexington, adjacent to its route. Second, and perhaps more impressively, the proposed changes that will be considered by the Town Meeting go beyond the bare minimum requirements mandated by the state, setting an example for how peer jurisdictions should think about the MBTA communities law — not as a ceiling for housing capacity, but the floor.
According to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s compliance guidelines, Lexington should rezone at least 50 acres in order to accommodate a minimum capacity of 1,231 multifamily housing units. What’s proposed before the Town Meeting subjects a total of 227 acres, dispersed throughout the town, to rezoning. For those who worry that may bring too much change to too many parts of town, the reality is that 227 acres only amount to 2 percent of Lexington’s total land area, as the town’s planners pointed out.
The reason that’s the right approach is because the MBTA communities law does not actually require any new construction — it just requires jurisdictions to allow for new construction of multifamily units should developers be interested. And so the larger the total area that’s rezoned, the more likely it is for the town to build a meaningful number of new housing units within a reasonable time frame. It’s a modest but foundational element in addressing the region’s housing shortage.
That’s ultimately why the Town Meeting should vote to adopt the proposed zoning changes, which it is expected to begin discussing Monday. But there are other reasons that Lexington and other jurisdictions should take note of too, including the fact that failing to comply with the MBTA communities law jeopardizes a municipality’s access to certain state funding. More than that, the state’s attorney general, Andrea Campbell, vowed to aggressively enforce the law by potentially suing noncompliant towns — a welcome approach to advancing fair housing in the state.
This isn’t the first time Lexington has tried to contribute to building more affordable housing. Back in 1971, when many liberals felt a sense of urgency to push forward with the fight for desegregation in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, Lexington’s Town Meeting approved a proposal to build some 150 affordable apartments — on a mere 8.4 acres of land — intended to be sold to moderate-income buyers. But, as author and Lexington native Bill McKibben recounted in an article in The New Yorker last year, the town’s mostly white residents overwhelmingly rejected the proposal in a referendum, opting to preserve the town’s exclusionary zoning and making racial segregation in the region just that much more difficult to overcome.
Now, more than 50 years later, Lexington has a chance to take a small step toward righting that wrong by showing its neighbors that breaking down barriers to building more multifamily and affordable housing is not some burden imposed by the state but a duty that today’s residents are more than willing to fulfill.
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