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Housing crisis demands zoning fix


It’s a housing nightmare out there.

Home prices are high. Rents are high — and until the law of supply and demand is repealed will remain so. Workers young and old have to commute farther and farther to find housing they can afford, accounting for some of those traffic jams that have become part of daily life.

A comprehensive new study, documenting the many and varied ways some suburban communities have managed to stifle housing development, particularly multifamily housing, isn’t exactly a shocker. But it does put facts and figures behind mere suspicions.

Most of all, it points to the crying need for Governor Charlie Baker’s Housing Choices legislation to pass this year, allowing cities and towns to make changes to their own zoning codes by a simple majority vote of the city council or town meeting, not the current two-thirds supermajority, which has proved such a stumbling block to progress.

The report, released last week by a coalition of housing advocates and industry groups and authored by researcher Amy Dain, examines housing and zoning practices in 100 Eastern Massachusetts communities outside Boston (which, it notes, was excluded because it is already meeting its housing expansion goals and has its own unique zoning laws).


Here’s just one set of statistics that helps explain how we got into the current housing mess:

“From 2010 to 2017, the Metropolitan Boston region added 245,000 new jobs, a 14 percent increase. Yet according to the best data available, cities and towns permitted only 71,600 housing units over that same time period, growth of only 5.2 percent.”

The study notes that while Quincy, Malden, Waltham, and Walpole have been building “hundreds of units in their centers,” other communities are guilty of erecting what it calls “The Paper Wall” of zoning restrictions that make multifamily housing the unicorn of suburban development. That would include places like Dover, Nahant, Bolton, Essex, Middleton, Norwell, and Carlisle. Opponents often justify NIMBYism by raising concerns over additional children in public schools, more traffic, or the alleged threat to the character of their neighborhoods.


“The local zoning approval processes for multifamily housing have been evolving to be more flexible, political, ad hoc, unpredictable, time consuming, and discretionary,” the report states, adding, “the current processes are unlikely to yield enough housing in the coming years.”

The report isn’t all bad news. Some of the trends mentioned are encouraging, where they are being tried: building housing close to transit hubs and commuter rail stations or resurrecting town centers with a mix of housing and retail.

The problem is it’s not nearly enough. And that brings us back to Baker’s bill, originally filed in 2017, allowed to die in the Legislature last year, and refiled in February with a further provision added last year by lawmakers to reduce the voting threshold for certain mixed-used projects with at least 10 percent affordable units near transit or commercial centers.

That gives people like Lyndia Downey, president of the Pine Street Inn, a reason to be hopeful that the kind of supportive housing needed to make a dent in homelessness will also be on the agenda.

“From a zoning standpoint, we’ve got to make it easier to do affordable housing,” she told the Globe editorial board, adding that the governor’s bill will help. Easing the way for greater density in some communities and permitting smaller units and “granny flats” can all help create lower-cost units.


There’s a lot that can — and should — be done. This page has been sympathetic to critics of the Baker bill who say it doesn’t go far enough. But the perfect can’t be the enemy of the good any longer. Doing away with that supermajority vote on key zoning issues doesn’t force anything on any community. But it can make a dent in the “Paper Wall” that Dain identified. It can turn the unlikely into the possible.

And that’s at least a start.