scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Zoning in the Boston suburbs is stacked against families with children

Decisions based on hundreds of local zoning laws add up to a glaring injustice overdue for redress.

Photo from Adobe Stock; Globe staff illustration

Many parents of school-age children are looking right now to rent an apartment or buy a condo in a multifamily building in Boston’s suburbs. No municipal official would tell them, “Sorry, kids are not welcome in our buildings.” It would sound absurd and horrible — and be against the law. The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits housing discrimination based on “familial status.”

Of course, families with children are welcome to live in multifamilies, and they do — where they can find suitable housing. But there’s just not enough of it available.

For decades, it has been either the official or unofficial policy of most of Boston’s suburbs to prohibit or discourage development of condos and apartments for families with children, because of school costs and other concerns. The policy is not announced; it is buried in hundreds of local zoning laws. The thousands of zoning decisions that follow add up to a glaring systematic injustice overdue for redress.

This is why the new MBTA Communities zoning law requires Massachusetts municipalities served by the transit system to reform their zoning to allow multifamily housing “suitable for families with children.” The region has perhaps not seen local zoning reform taking place at this scale since The Boston Globe concluded in 1960 that “suburban Boston is zoned to the eyeballs.”


Evidence of the exclusionary policy against families is seen, first of all, in age-restricted zoning. More than half of the 100 Boston suburbs I surveyed for a 2019 report had adopted such zoning, which allows for development of multifamily housing intended for residents 55 years or older. Many communities even offer incentives for developers to place age restrictions on projects, such as permission to build more units. From 2015 to 2017 alone, almost a quarter of Boston’s suburbs granted permits for age-restricted housing developments.


Local zoning sometimes also places restrictions on the number of bedrooms allowed in new developments. More than a quarter of the 100 suburbs I studied had provisions to restrict the number in at least some kinds of multifamily developments. The restrictions generally favor studios and one- and two-bedrooms, which families with multiple children are less likely to choose.

Importantly, age and bedroom restrictions do not need to be explicitly written into the zoning books to be in force. In almost every community, approval processes for multifamily housing are discretionary, political, and risky, so would-be builders have to be strategic. Developers know they are more likely to gain zoning approval from a town if they propose age-restricted projects or projects containing small units.

In its 1969 town plan, Duxbury recommended that “multi-family housing be allowed in Duxbury only if it can be legally restricted to elderly persons.” The town issued the plan shortly after Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, and communities were figuring out how to respond. The legal way to achieve senior-only occupancy of multifamily housing, the plan continued, was to require project approval from the Planning Board: “the Board and the developer are free to negotiate the details of such a development.”

Such negotiation through the approval process is how many communities have ensured that few children will live in new apartment buildings. By 2003, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a Boston-based advocacy group, had already documented the systematic “childproofing” of multifamily housing development: “We find that most of the Commonwealth’s new multi-family developments have generated little if any impact on public schools because with rare exception, they were designed to be childproof.” Designed, this means, by municipal regulation.


One official reason given for childproofing new multifamily housing is that local schools lack capacity to accommodate growth. Local housing plans have also cited fiscal benefits, reduced traffic, and the “maturity” of older residents as reasons to support 55-plus zoning. The Town of Lynnfield’s 2002 master plan explained: “Another means of increasing the tax base in Lynnfield is development of age-restricted housing. These developments have a positive fiscal impact because they do not produce any school-age children.” (The plan is now being updated.)

There is an argument to be made that simply eliminating the local authority to zone for age restrictions and bedroom counts could result in less housing overall. The local politics of zoning approval can be grueling for any kind of multifamily housing, but as Chelmsford’s 1996 master plan summarized, “Senior housing is usually more readily accepted by existing residents than regular multi-family housing.” The local ability to restrict occupancy of projects by age, or by allowed number of bedrooms, helps to get more projects past the political finish line. Senior housing, for example, helps many types of households. When seniors move out of single-family houses into age-restricted buildings, they free up single-families for families with children, who then free up rentals and condos for young adults. The fact is more housing, of any type, is good for everyone.


But all of this does not make it OK to zone children out of apartment and condo buildings. Families with children are protected by the federal fair housing law, which also prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, or national origin. Housing diversity strengthens the whole social fabric.

The state has forged a framework for a solution. Under the MBTA Communities zoning law, municipalities are required to allow multifamily development without age and bedroom restrictions in at least one zoning district. This family-suitable housing must be allowed with a non-discretionary approval process, which means municipalities cannot negotiate the restrictions as conditions of approval. In these districts, property owners will be allowed to build three-bedroom apartments free of age restrictions, as well as the historically easier to approve 55-plus housing and studios.

Now it is the municipalities’ turn to revise their zoning, to come in compliance with the state law. Contentious votes will be held soon, town by town, city by city. Success in this effort will reverse historic injustices embedded in Greater Boston’s zoning codes.

Amy Dain is a consultant in public policy research and writing, currently researching the history of exclusionary zoning in Boston’s suburbs. She has conducted two surveys of zoning in Greater Boston, published in 2005 and 2019. Send comments to