Newton may not win any merit badges for the zoning changes its City Council approved Monday night, which appear to put the city just barely in compliance with a state law aimed at encouraging housing growth. But the fact that they happened at all is worth celebrating and underscores the value of the part of the law that imposes deadlines on communities that might otherwise deliberate interminably over difficult decisions.
The 2021 state law requires municipalities served by the T to allow housing near transit stops — and allow it quickly. Some suburbs subject to the new requirements, including Lexington and Arlington, have approached the state’s expectations as a floor and zoned well above them, seizing the opportunity to help the Commonwealth address the housing crisis. Even Brookline ended up embracing a relatively robust rezoning of the area around Harvard Street.
Although Newton also drafted a more transformative plan, that is not what passed on Monday. Instead, the city’s zoning changes will allow for 8,745 residential units, just a hair above the 8,330 units required by the state — and close enough that there’s a chance the state could still reject them. The new zoning will apply only to the area around Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, West Newton, Newtonville, and Auburndale.
The bare-minimum approach reflects a shift in the political climate in the city, where several pro-housing councilors lost their reelection bids in November. The lame-duck council could have pushed through bigger changes anyway but seems to have interpreted the November results as a mandate to lower the city’s ambitions.
While that outcome is disappointing to housing advocates, it’s easy to imagine how much worse it might have been were it not for the deadlines spelled out in the MBTA Communities Act. Without a ticking clock, the city could have just gone back to the drawing board for a few more years of hearings. But Newton only has until the end of this year to comply with the law or else it will lose access to various state funds.
As critics sometimes point out, changing zoning doesn’t actually result in any housing construction; it merely allows it. But the state is right to focus on zoning because restrictive municipal zoning is the root cause of so many of the state’s current housing problems. Historically, communities like Newton have used their zoning codes to keep out apartments, and thus renters, while imposing restrictions on things like lot size that drive up prices. Those restrictions have constrained the supply of housing, pushing up prices, while also entrenching residential segregation by income.
There are other state initiatives — tax credits for apartment construction in Gateway Cities, for instance — that might have a more immediate impact on housing growth. But over the long term, nothing will open up the state for new construction like zoning reform. And the state, which granted communities the power to zone in the first place, has every right to insist that they stop abusing that power with restrictions that weigh down the state’s economy.
That doesn’t make zoning changes popular, of course — and pushing through zoning at the local level will be a slog. A few more communities face a deadline to rezone by the end of this month — among them, Braintree and Milton. But the bigger test will be in 2024, when a much larger group of communities will need to rezone some areas for multifamily housing. Hopefully, there’ll be more Lexingtons than Newtons in that group — but the important thing is that they comply.
Of course, Newton doesn’t have to treat Monday’s vote as the last word. The 2021 law also made it permanently easier to rezone for housing. Changes that would have required a two-thirds vote before now only need a majority. (Zoning changes that don’t generate more housing opportunities still require the two-thirds vote.) Every town and city should be looking for ways to bring down barriers to new construction. The more that communities accept their share of the responsibility for solving our region’s housing crisis, the better the state’s chances of taming a growing threat to its future.
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