Study highlights local rules that block new housing in Greater Boston
Thanks to a thicket of zoning rules, the suburban communities of Greater Boston have lots of ways to make it difficult to build apartments and other multifamily housing that many of their residents don’t want.
Now housing advocates are cataloging those ways, and looking for new approaches to getting more homes built.
A coalition of major housing industry and advocacy groups on Tuesday is releasing a study billed as the first comprehensive review of zoning laws in Eastern Massachusetts in more than a decade. The groups hope to highlight the local rules that slow or block development and keep the growing region in the grip of a housing crisis that shows few signs of easing.
“These rules may be logical for each community,” said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, one of the groups behind the study. “But they become negative for the region as a whole.”
In a state where land use decisions are almost entirely a local affair, zoning laws at the city and town level have a huge influence on what gets built. Yet no one comprehensively tracks these regulations. So the groups — including trade organizations for home builders and real estate agents as well as affordable-housing advocates — hired a public policy researcher, Amy Dain, to study the zoning codes and housing plans of 100 Eastern Massachusetts municipalities. Two years and countless site visits later, she produced a 123-page report highlighting how they relegate new housing to certain spots, at certain sizes, or discourage it altogether.
“Basically, we were trying to come up with what is the aggregate, de facto plan for building multifamily housing across Greater Boston,” Dain said. “Everyone talks about it. But we don’t talk about what we’re actually allowing, and where.”
Much of the report examines what Dain calls “the paper wall,” the maze of regulations — lot size requirements, parking minimums, age restrictions — that often serve to block multifamily housing, even when it is nominally permitted by zoning.
The Town of Dover, for instance, technically allows apartment buildings but requires that 25 percent of units in a new building be affordable, that 40 percent be set aside for senior citizens, and that the project contain no more than four units per acre — a density more common to single-family homes with yards. No project has ever been permitted in Dover under those rules, Dain noted.
When cities and towns do approve large-scale housing, they often do so through so-called special permits — and usually through Town Meeting votes — a lengthy process that can drive up costs and introduce lots of political complexity.
It’s a process that should be simplified, said Andre Leroux, executive director of the Smart Growth Alliance.
“Communities love their special permits. They want to have discretion over development,” he said. “Fine. But let’s at least make it easier for communities to approve special permits.”
And that’s where this study, two years in the making, plays into the debate of the month on Beacon Hill. Governor Charlie Baker is pushing hard for a vote on his long-stalled Housing Choice bill, which would lower the threshold that’s needed to approve many zoning changes from the two-thirds majority of a City Council or Town Meeting currently needed to 50 percent plus one.
It’s a small tweak that could unlock thousands of new units of housing that have local support but not a supermajority, Baker has said.
All the groups behind Tuesday’s study agree, but some say Housing Choice should be just a first step to broader reforms.
“Once that passes, we’ve got to seriously talk about other things we need to do,” Draisen said. “There are plenty. This is a major crisis.”
One of the solutions may be a more regional approach to planning.
Dain’s report highlighted how many municipalities force denser development to their edges or to formerly industrial areas, to protect existing single-family neighborhoods. Those areas often border a neighboring town, but the neighbors are not necessarily collaborating with each other.
If they did collaborate, they could better plan new corridors of growth, Dain said, pointing to areas such as the north side of the Mystic River, where Medford, Malden, and Everett separately have permitted nearly 3,000 apartments in total over the last 20 years.
“That is like a dream area to prove how we can build on the edges of our cities and towns, in a connected way,” Dain said, pointing to similar opportunities along Route 1A in Dedham and Westwood and along Route 128 in Newton, Needham, and Wellesley.
“How do we plan to knit zoning and infrastructure together in places like that?”