If Boston wants more housing — the key to its economic future and growth — one of the biggest solutions isn’t exactly rocket science. The city needs to clear away a thicket of zoning regulations that make building here — whether it’s a triple-decker in Hyde Park, an accessory dwelling unit in Jamaica Plain, or a condo building in Southie — a tortuous process. And a tax break for those projects wouldn’t hurt the effort either.
Mayor Michelle Wu in a speech to business leaders last week promised a “comprehensive update” to a 60-year-old zoning code she called “long, dense, and internally inconsistent in ways that make planning confusing, unpredictable, and costly.”
It was a realistic bit of overdue truth telling — and an acknowledgement that there is much the city can do to cure its own housing ills without going hat in hand to Beacon Hill.
Beyond that, Wu also hinted that with lending rates high and new home construction “incredibly difficult to finance … we are strongly considering a time-limited tax incentive program for housing creation.”
Should a tax incentive program materialize, it will likely be aimed at housing proposals already in the pipeline — Wu said there are some 23,000 such units that have their city approvals but have simply not been able to translate those approvals into “shovels in the ground.” And since the mayor invited “collaboration” on the tax break idea, count this editorial board in the “yes, please” column.
The mayor used her speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce to reintroduce the concept of zoning reform as the lynchpin to creating more housing and more mixed-use areas, especially near transit hubs. Yes, just the kind of housing, retail, civic space mix too many suburbs are fighting as they challenge the new MBTA Communities law zoning requirements.
The mayor and the city’s chief of planning, James Arthur Jemison, have been talking about changing the code since last winter. In fact, the report Wu released last week by Cornell professor Sara C. Bronin, founder of the National Zoning Atlas, was actually dated January 2023.
Its analysis will hardly be shocking to developers, lawyers, and home builders who have attempted to deal with the city zoning code’s nearly 4,000 pages of convoluted rules and subchapters — compared to a mere 542 pages for the Memphis zoning code. Even Portland, Ore., manages to keep its code to some 1,830 pages. Bronin told the Globe the city should likely aim for about 500 pages or so.
As Wu said, “even minor changes to a home or business often require hiring a lawyer,” and “building a new triple-decker in most neighborhoods requires a variance, even if they’re lining the street.”
And symptomatic of exactly how outdated the code is, Bronin notes in her report, are references to “orphanages” and now-extinct “pay phones.”
And there’s this illustrative bit of wisdom:
“A homeowner who wishes to put a gabled dormer on a roof or a small business owner who wants to add a takeout component to their restaurant may pay $10,000 and undergo a six-month review process to achieve what in other places might have a one-day approval turnaround time and cost less than $100. The costs of zoning compliance make Boston less affordable, because those costs get internalized or passed on, including to tenants and customers.”
Homeowners looking to make improvements know that scenario all too well.
Bronin’s report contains three critical recommendations in the area of housing:
▪ “Establish as-of-right pathways for all principal-use housing
▪ “Enable dense housing around squares and transit hubs, and
▪ “Legalize accessory dwellings,” those granny or in-law units that can add hundreds of units of housing a year.
All are a good place to start to make those long overdue reforms. So too is one specific promise Wu made in her speech — a set of zoning amendments that will make child-care facilities, including family day-care centers “as of right” in communities.
Now keep in mind, there is nothing to stand in the way of the Wu administration starting to hack away at the code and making it work for residents instead of working only for those who know how to work the system. Changes need only the approval of the Boston Planning & Development Agency Board and the Zoning Commission.
But change — any kind of change — will also require large measures of political courage. Past mayors have tackled zoning reforms in a piecemeal fashion, if at all, for a reason. Every line in that 3,791-page code is there because someone had the political muscle to put it there or today benefits from it. Simplifying the code is an essential reform that will yield long-term gains for the city, and Wu deserves credit for taking it on — but getting the job done won’t be easy for her or her team.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.