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The MBTA Communities law is putting Brookline’s liberal values to the test

A plan to allow denser housing along Harvard Street is controversial, but would be an important step to make the town more inclusive while also helping address the state’s housing shortage.

The Coolidge Corner stop on the Green Line in Brookline.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Brookline is wealthy, highly educated, and liberal: the kind of town where last week’s news of the jury verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s civil suit against Donald Trump interrupted a local meeting on zoning reform — leading one participant to groan, “Is he going to jail yet?” — before the group resumed debating how much neighborhood change is tolerable.

And like many other rich, liberal, largely white suburbs, Brookline — where Joe Biden won 87 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential election — has not always lived up to its purported values, especially when it comes to housing policy. For decades, Brookline’s zoning code and its discretionary special permitting requirements have stunted the growth of multifamily housing, which is exactly the kind of development that would help make living in the town more financially feasible for moderate-income earners. As a result, Brookline has only contributed to Greater Boston’s persistent racial and socioeconomic segregation.


According to the latest US Census Bureau data, Brookline’s median home value is over $1 million, and the median household income is about $122,000 — well above the state average. About 2.5 percent of Brookline’s 63,000 residents are Black and 6.6 percent are Latino. And while the Latino population has grown in the last several decades, the share of Black Brookline residents has actually declined: In 2000, 2.7 percent of residents were Black; in 1990, it was 3.1 percent.

In recent years, Brookline has tried to improve its socioeconomic diversity by making it easier to approve housing developments, like reducing parking requirements for projects near public transit. But despite many residents’ efforts, the town has yet to make the kind of zoning changes that would actually make it meaningfully more affordable and diverse.

That’s where the MBTA Communities law — the state law that was under discussion in that temporarily interrupted meeting last week — comes in. Passed by the Legislature in 2021, it requires municipalities served by the T to create new zoning districts that allow multifamily housing by right — meaning, without the cumbersome special permit process. Brookline has until the end of this year to comply; if it doesn’t, it risks losing access to certain state grants and may even face a lawsuit.


The good news is that Brookline’s Planning and Community Development Department has been studying a potential zoning update for Harvard Street that would promote building more multifamily housing along one of the town’s main corridors around Coolidge Corner. That area, anchored by the Green Line, is an optimal neighborhood for the kind of higher-density zoning envisioned in the MBTA Communities law, and Town Meeting should use the planning department’s work as the basis for compliance with the state law.

But as the planning department puts together a final draft, opponents have started searching for an alternative. Some are concerned that businesses along Harvard Street would suffer under new zoning regulations because of prolonged, disruptive construction, and because zoning changes might not guarantee that enough space would be explicitly reserved for commercial use.

Opponents have also suggested that because Brookline permitted over 1,000 housing units between 2015 and 2020, the town is already moving in the right direction anyway. But there’s a wrinkle in that otherwise commendable progress. As the planning department pointed out, Brookline’s special permitting requirements for multifamily units are so onerous that developers often turned to subsidized housing projects because Chapter 40B — the state’s law that requires at least 10 percent of a town or city’s housing be defined as affordable — allows those projects to bypass permitting rules.


Now that Brookline has met 40B’s 10 percent threshold, though, developers will lose that option, and the current pace of housing production will likely slow. As for the concerns about retail: In the long term, creating a denser neighborhood is good for local business because more residents means more foot traffic and potential customers. In fact, according to the planning department, some retailers have avoided opening up in Coolidge Corner because of concerns that the population was too low.

That said, there’s always room to improve any proposal, including that of the planning department. But one thing Town Meeting should not do is violate the spirit of the new law. After all, the state is facing a severe housing shortage, and ending it is every community’s responsibility.

One leading opponent to the Harvard Street proposal, though, has suggested making just the bare minimum zoning changes needed to avoid violating state law. “I think there is value to meeting the legal requirements and maybe not producing a lot of units, and the reason that I feel that way is because I am not convinced that we have the time to get a really good proposal together by that deadline for something that’s actually going to generate redevelopment,” Town Meeting member Linda Olson Pehlke said in a recent committee meeting. “To me, there’s value just in possibly buying time that we need, and having it in our back pocket.”


With most MBTA communities just starting to overhaul their zoning, foot-dragging in Brookline would set a bad precedent. While Pehlke told the editorial board that she’d like more time because she would prefer a more comprehensive community-driven process, it’s worth noting that the planning department has already engaged community members and plans to continue doing so in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Brookline’s planning department must be savvy enough to make use of new state rules meant to lessen the procedural hurdles for rezoning. While zoning changes often need to pass with at least a two-thirds vote, the law that included the MBTA Communities act lowered that threshold for reforms that promote multifamily housing to a simple majority. Because the final Harvard Street plan might include commercial rezoning, it could still require the two-thirds threshold to pass (depending on the Town Meeting moderator’s interpretation of the law) — something planners should seek to avoid, by breaking the plan into two votes if necessary.

Brookline doesn’t have to look far to see what’s possible. Lexington, another wealthy liberal town with a history of exclusionary housing policies, set an example for the region when it recently passed zoning changes that go above and beyond what the MBTA law requires — and its Town Meeting did so with a simple majority vote. That Boston suburb fully embraced the spirit of the law, and there’s no reason Brookline shouldn’t do the same.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.