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EDITORIAL

In Milton, a critical vote to help ease the housing crisis

The comfortable suburb needs to do its part for a region in desperate need of new housing.

The Mattapan Trolley, which serves Milton, trundled alongside the Neponset River Greenway Trail.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

For Geoff Wilkinson of Milton, the stakes are clear.

“We’re in a real fight now,” the housing advocate says, “for the future and character of our community.”

For more than a year now, Wilkinson and his allies have been pushing the town to comply with a state law known as the MBTA Communities act, which requires municipalities served by the T to zone for a certain amount of multifamily housing.

When Town Meeting obliged in December, it felt like a real breakthrough.

A community that had jealously guarded its identity as a single-family-home suburb finally seemed amenable to something more.

In a few neighborhoods on the north side of town, at least, it would countenance more of the condominium developments and apartment buildings that people of modest means might be able to afford. A Milton teacher. Maybe a family from Dorchester, just over the town line, seeking more opportunity for their kids.

This would look more like the open, inclusive town that advocates had long envisioned.

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But if the Town Meeting vote was decisive, 158 in favor of the new zoning and 76 opposed, opponents couldn’t accept defeat — quickly gathering enough signatures to force a townwide referendum on the new development rules.

Voters will have their say on Feb. 13. And the choice is clear.

They should back the new zoning with a “yes” vote. They should favor openness and growth. And they should send a signal to dozens of other towns that will soon face a similar choice.

For decades, suburbs across the region have placed sharp limits on multifamily housing in a bid to preserve the “character” of their towns.

The goal was often to keep out low-income people.

But by crimping supply, they barred plenty of middle-class families, too. Without enough units to meet demand, prices soared to absurd heights.

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Now the region is in the midst of a full-blown housing crisis — threatening the vitality of one of the country’s most important local economies.

The best hope for addressing that crisis is successful implementation of the MBTA Communities act, which requires 177 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts to have at least one reasonably sized zoning district that allows for the construction of multifamily housing by right.

The law moves in stages. And first up was a group of a dozen “rapid transit communities” clustered around Boston and served by the Red, Orange, Green, Blue, and Silver lines.

They had to zone for more housing than the other communities covered by the act — the equivalent of 25 percent of their existing stock. And they had to move quickest — putting new rules in place by the end of 2023.

The requirements drew grumbles across Greater Boston. But some of the loudest came from Milton.

A few critics of the law suggested ignoring it altogether.

Others objected to Milton’s classification as a rapid transit community — even as the state explained that the Mattapan Trolley that rumbles through town is considered a branch of the Red Line.

And Milton got quite close to the deadline before Town Meeting passed the required zoning — only to see opponents extend the fight even further with the referendum push.

All the attention the town has attracted in the process has turned it into an important test case for the viability of the MBTA Communities law. Voters should weigh that as they mark their ballots on Feb. 13. Shirk their responsibility to the region and they could embolden other towns to do the same — putting the best chance to address Eastern Massachusetts’ affordability crisis in jeopardy.

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And if they’re not moved by a sense of obligation to neighboring communities, voters should consider the local consequences — not just for the Milton firefighter looking for a reasonably priced apartment or the empty nester looking to downsize but for the town as a whole.

Under the MBTA Communities law, municipalities that refuse to zone for multifamily housing are barred from receiving certain state funds. And Attorney General Andrea Campbell has threatened legal action of her own.

Defiance would be costly.

Still, opponents press ahead. And they’ve fashioned a message well-tuned to the town’s left-leaning electorate: The new zoning, they say, would harm the environment.

The argument is that more apartments and condos would mean more cars idling on the streets. And it’s true as far as it goes.

But a region desperate for new housing needs to put it somewhere. And the law was specifically designed to mitigate the environmental impacts by clustering housing near transit hubs; in Milton, more than half of the new zoning would be within walking distance of a trolley stop.

Of course, public transit has to work if it’s going to keep people out of their cars. And opponents say the Mattapan line’s 1940s-era trolleys won’t do the job.

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But they’ve shuttled thousands of commuters to work every day for decades. And the T is planning to replace the old vessels with modern, high-capacity Green Line-style vehicles before much, if any, of the new housing could be built in the area.

Opponents make a social justice argument, too.

They say Milton’s new zoning doesn’t provide for enough affordable housing, setting aside just 10 percent of units in large new developments for that purpose.

But 10 percent is the maximum allowed under the MBTA Communities act; state lawmakers didn’t want towns to choke off development by making unreasonably high demands for affordability.

The state guidelines, it should be said, provide a way around the 10 percent threshold. A town can commission a study demonstrating that projects would still be viable with a larger set aside. Milton, to its credit, is moving toward approval of just such a study now. And following through is the best way to get more affordability — not scrapping the new zoning and starting all over.

Wilkinson, the cofounder of a group called Affordable Inclusive Milton, is skeptical that affordability concerns are really driving the opposition.

To him, it all looks like a cynical cover for a more selfish aim — keeping the town as it is.

Opponents insist they’re sincere — insist they just want the town to take more time and develop better zoning.

But Milton has taken plenty of time already. It’s developed a solid plan. Now it’s time to move.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.