This year will be remembered as the one when Massachusetts communities began — ever so gingerly, and with great kicking and screaming — facing up to the enormous problems caused by their restrictive zoning codes, which for generations have marbled racial segregation, sprawl, and high prices into the state’s landscape. Brookline became the latest on Tuesday when its Town Meeting approved a raft of zoning reforms designed to allow multifamily housing in more of the wealthy suburb. Like so many other places in Massachusetts, Brookline traditionally made it impossible or inordinately difficult to construct dense housing.
Of course, it’s not a sudden change of heart propelling the changes in Brookline and elsewhere. Communities are under the gun: The Legislature passed a law in 2021 requiring municipalities in the MBTA service area to allow at least some multifamily housing. By imposing deadlines for enacting new zoning and threatening consequences for communities that delay, the law forced municipalities to pay attention to a touchy subject that, history shows, few would have had any appetite to tackle themselves. In neighboring Newton, pro-housing city councilors were defeated in their reelection bids earlier this month, showing just how politically risky changes to zoning remain at the local level.
Still, it’s notable that in its plan to allow four-story buildings on much of Harvard Street, Brookline went beyond the bare minimum to meet the law’s requirements. It’s not alone in that regard: Lexington and Arlington also did more than the law required (and sooner than required). Brookline’s proposal also passed overwhelmingly: 207 to 33, with 7 abstentions. NIMBYs get the most attention, but there is clearly a pro-housing constituency in the Massachusetts suburbs, and those housing advocates are effectively capitalizing on the opportunity the law has created for communities to reexamine decades-old zoning.
Those antiquated zoning codes typically confined development to single-family homes on large lots — thus, almost by definition, limiting residency to people who could afford single-family homes on large lots. Not only is that style of development environmentally destructive, but it turned Massachusetts into a state sharply segregated by income. And it has lead to the historic underproduction of new housing that’s causing skyrocketing prices now.
Allowing denser housing near the T has obvious environmental benefits — it takes up less land, and the people who live there may be more likely to use public transit. Multifamily housing is also generally cheaper to build, especially when it’s not subjected to a torturous local approval process. It may take decades, but allowing more apartments to be built more easily should, over time, reduce the demand that’s driving up prices of existing housing stock to such unaffordable levels. It will also make communities more diverse — especially when communities require some developments to set aside units for low-income families, as Brookline does.
By itself, Tuesday’s vote won’t have an immediate impact. Like all zoning changes, the vote in Brookline concerned what is allowed, not what is required. The new zoning doesn’t automatically cause anything to be built. Indeed, it may take years for the up-zoning across Boston’s suburbs triggered by the MBTA law to have an economic impact — just as it took years for exclusive zoning to distort the market as much as it has.
Still, zoning is the long-term foundation of every other housing policy choice. Creating opportunities to build lower-cost, denser, greener housing is the most important thing Massachusetts municipalities can do to meet the Commonwealth’s broader goals. The communities that have embraced both the letter and spirit of the MBTA law this year are meeting that challenge. And with its vote on Tuesday, Brookline joined them.
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