NEWTON — It’s easy to understand, walking through this city’s tree-lined neighborhoods, why it is so prized by those who live here, and why so many others cannot afford to.
Block after picturesque block is filled with gracious Victorian homes, many with ample grassy yards. Apartments and condos are less common — about one-third of the housing stock.
But after a series of bruising battles over large multifamily development projects in recent years, that may soon change. Newton officials are attempting to rewrite key sections of the city’s zoning code to allow for more multifamily housing, the latest in an early wave of rezoning efforts beginning to take hold across the region that may help to finally undo the entrenched opposition in so many Boston suburbs to any attempts to solve the housing crisis.
Like similar efforts underway around Greater Boston right now, the rezoning plan in Newton is motivated largely by a new state law that requires 177 communities served by the MBTA to eliminate barriers to building more apartments.
How the debate shakes out in this suburban city of 87,000 may prove to be consequential: Newton, one of the region’s wealthiest enclaves, has to zone for more new units under the state rezoning law, MBTA Communities, than almost any other community. Should the rezoning overcome fledgling resident opposition and pass by the end-of-year deadline, it could serve as a model for other communities and represent a major turning point in the city’s attitude toward multifamily housing.
“We have an opportunity to finally get this across the finish line and address the stunning inequalities in our city,” said Lizbeth Heyer, chair of the Newton Housing Partnership, a city-sanctioned board that advises officials on housing policy. “This rezoning is a recognition of the fact that, for a long time, we’ve prevented lower-income people from living in Newton, and that it should no longer be that way.”
Newton is a city built around single-family homes. And while there have been some notable apartment projects constructed in recent years, the production of new housing, especially multifamily, is still relatively low. Between 2010 and 2020, the city added just over 1,100 new units, or roughly 3 percent of Newton’s total housing stock.
As such, home prices in Newton are some of the highest in Massachusetts. Last year, the median sales price of a single-family home was around $1.6 million, according to the Warren Group, a real estate analytics firm.
Apartments in Newton are often clustered near the city’s commercial centers in large-scale projects.
That is, at least in part, what officials are hoping to change. Instead of big complexes, they want projects of more reasonable scale built in Newton’s 13 villages, in hopes of revitalizing the neighborhood commercial centers while adding much-needed affordable housing.
The city’s current proposal would zone for more than 10,000 new apartments, depending on parking requirements, significantly more that the 8,330 required of Newton under MBTA Communities. Building heights would max out at four-and-a-half stories on main commercial streets, though one option on the table would allow for buildings to be taller if they provide more affordable housing.
The new rules would apply to only around 3 percent of the city’s total land area, according to the Planning Department, leaving most residential neighborhoods untouched.
“To us, this feels like common sense,” said City Councilor Deborah Crossley, who chairs Newton’s zoning board. “Targeting the village centers is an idea proven to make cities more vibrant. Nobody’s residential neighborhood is going to suddenly start seeing apartment buildings on every corner.”
Newtonville is a prime example. The bulk of the village center is made up almost entirely of one- and two-story commercial buildings, with one large mixed-use development. Just one block beyond the main strip, though, shops and restaurants give way to a grassy neighborhood of spacious Victorian homes.
The new zoning would not fundamentally change that neighborhood, planners say, but some of the residential blocks immediately surrounding village centers could be rezoned for new buildings of up to four apartment units, the kind of modest-scale “missing middle” housing that advocates say could do wonders for Greater Boston’s housing supply.
Newton’s plan is ambitious, and much of the public still needs persuading. And there already has been pushback at public meetings and on social media, which will likely snowball as the end-of-year deadline gets closer.
Some in Newton worry that allowing four-and-a-half story buildings will makes the village centers feel “urban.” Others believe rezoning even small patches of residential areas will lead to the destruction of historic neighborhoods, though some proponents note that historic homes are already being scrapped and replaced with modern “McMansions.”
“Five- and six-story buildings are not conducive to healthy village life,” Diane Pruente, a representative for the group RightSize Newton, said at a zoning committee hearing earlier this year. “The zoning changes being considered by the city raise serious questions about how much density we should develop and how much this will change the fabric of our neighborhoods.”
Similar pushback is happening in nearly all of the cities and towns covered by MBTA Communities, especially the 12 served by the T’s main rapid-service lines that must have their new zoning on the books by year’s end.
Newton in particular has stood out for the ferocity of the resistance to new housing of any kind. Big projects approved by the City Council are often hit with lawsuits. In some cases, opponents have even forced a citywide referendum to decide the fate of developments — a costly and uncertain endeavor. The sprawling, mixed-use Northland project in Newton Upper Falls, for example, was put on the ballot in 2020, though voters eventually backed the development.
A similar test may be in the offing for the village center rezoning as well. A petition condemning the effort is already circulating, and a referendum could potentially throw off city officials’ plan to meet the December MBTA Communities deadline.
Crossley, the city councilor, said she is expecting a City Council vote on the rezoning in the fall. Should a referendum indeed take place, it would come after that.
Much is at stake.
The state is threatening to pull two key grant programs — MassWorks and Housing Choice — from communities that fail to meet their deadline. Newton uses those grants extensively, receiving $2 million from MassWorks in 2022 to improve a problematic intersection, as well as $235,000 for an affordable housing study from the last round of Housing Choice allocations.
Missing the deadline could also leave the city open to a lawsuit from outside groups, or from the state. Attorney General Andrea Campbell said in an advisory in March that her office may view defiance of MBTA Communities as a violation of state and federal fair housing laws that prohibit discriminatory zoning.
Some in the city see even more to lose. The rezoning, said Crossley, would be an important first step to addressing Newton’s housing shortage and its reputation for rejecting new housing. And, she said, the zoning Newton has developed — prioritizing housing in and around commercial districts — could be a replicable model for cities and towns with later deadlines.
“If Newton can do it,” said Kathy Pillsbury, an advocate with Newton housing group Engine 6, “why can’t the rest of Massachusetts?”