Study: Local Zoning Rules Block Multi-Family Housing in MA

Cover: State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater BostonCities & towns making it difficult to build housing even amid housing shortage and affordability crisis, research finds

Boston – Over the past 15 years, despite many changes in local zoning, it remains difficult if not impossible to build multi-family housing in cities and towns across Metro Boston, according to a detailed study on development released today.

Thanks to a combination of local policies and state rules, housing has become increasingly difficult to permit in all but a handful of communities across the region, despite an affordability crisis and supply shortage that threatens to hobble the region’s economy and worsen racial wealth gaps.

The report, “The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston,” paints a dismal picture of the process for approving and building housing in 100 communities comprising Greater Boston, even as the region struggles with escalating rents and an inadequate supply of homes to house all the workers needed to fill jobs in a bustling Massachusetts economy.

Report author Amy Dain points to a series of small, subjective local decisions and bylaw changes that collectively tip the balance away from production and create hurdles for even good-quality development to succeed.

“In the early decades of zoning, all development was allowed ‘as-of-right,’ meaning that landowners had a right to build projects that meet the specifications in zoning. In the 1960s, municipalities began shifting their zoning systems to a more ad hoc and discretionary system of special permits,” said Dain. “In recent decades, the system has become even more political and discretionary, with the local legislative body, either town meeting or city council, having the final say over multi-family developments, project by project.”

Between 2015 and 2017, only 14% of all multi-family units in the 100 cities and towns were able to use “by right” zoning, found Dain. Approximately 57% used special permits, 22% used Chapter 40B (which overrides local zoning if the city or town does not met the state threshold for affordable housing), and 7% used use variances (also discretionary).

Relatively little land in Metro Boston is zoned for new multi-family development, Dain found.  While that might be not an issue if communities built up in height, “most municipalities highly restrict height and density of development too, such that buildout does not satisfy demand.”

The study is the first in 15 years to review zoning and permitting in Metro Boston in a systematic manner. The last major analysis, done by Dain for the Pioneer Institute in 2006, highlighted the many municipal barriers to housing production. Her latest review shows limited progress in some communities, but not enough to keep up with increased housing demand.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and six other organizations, including quasi-public agencies and real estate groups, commissioned Dain’s work.

“The problem with the approval process for multi-family housing is that it is time-consuming, costly, unpredictable, and results in building far less housing than we need,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a study funder.

The study found a “major shift” in use of mixed-use zoning, particularly in city and town centers.  Mixed-use zoning, which allows for housing and commercial uses in the same building or same parcel, has now been adopted in over 80% of the region’s municipalities.

“Although many communities have adopted mixed-use zoning for both homes and offices in their downtowns, many of them continue to restrict the actual number of units that can be built through height limitations, restrictions on the number of bedrooms, and onerous parking requirements. When you combine these restrictions with the discretionary approval of individual projects, you have a recipe to produce much less housing than the people of Metro Boston need,” said Marc Draisen, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, which also helped to fund the research as the Metro Boston region’s planning agency.

“This shortage forces prices to skyrocket, along with the number of homeless people in our region,” Draisen added.

While municipalities are adopting mixed-use in their centers, much more zoning density and housing production is going to areas away from those centers.  “Municipalities have been cautious in allowing development in historic centers, typically permitting tens of dwelling units, but not hundreds,” according to Dain.

“Too often the significant developments are in car-centric locations away from shopping, jobs and public transportation. Local politics often pushes major development to places where existing homeowners won’t protest,” said André Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. “As a result, we’re getting more traffic and less housing. It’s time to level the playing field.”

The research is being unveiled at a State House forum Tuesday, June 4. Speakers include Representative Kevin Honan, Senator Brendan Crighton, Winchester Town Manager and former Mayor of Fitchburg Lisa Wong, MAPC’s Data Services Director Tim Reardon, Jeff Rhuda of Symes Associates, and André Leroux, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

The executive summary and full report can be downloaded at


Amanda Linehan
(617) 388-1556
Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC)

André Leroux
(617) 251-3861
MA Smart Growth Alliance

Paul McMorrow
(617) 854-1141


Amy Dain

Before forming Dain Research, report author Amy Dain coordinated the StatNet initiative for the Collins Center for Public Management at UMass Boston, and managed the Pioneer Institute’s Housing Initiative.

Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association

Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA) is the leading statewide affordable housing policy and research organization in Massachusetts. Established in 1967, CHAPA advocates for increased opportunity and expanded access to housing so that every person in Massachusetts can have a safe, healthy, and affordable place to call home. For more information, visit

The Home Builders & Remodelers Association

The Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts (HBRAMA) is a non-profit trade association consisting of over 2000 single and multi-family builders, developers, remodelers, suppliers and other allied professionals to the residential construction industry. Chief among its goals is providing and expanding housing opportunities in the Commonwealth for individuals and families of all incomes.

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors®

The Massachusetts Association of Realtors® is a professional trade association established in 1924 for licensed real estate practitioners. MAR’s mission is to advance Realtor® professionalism and member success; and be the leading advocate of private property rights and the real estate industry throughout Massachusetts.


MassHousing (The Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency) is an independent, quasi-public agency created in 1966 and charged with providing financing for affordable housing in Massachusetts. Since its inception, MassHousing has provided more than $22.8 billion for affordable housing. For more information, visit the MassHousing website at, follow us on Twitter @MassHousing, subscribe to our blog and Like us on Facebook.

Massachusetts Housing Partnership

MHP works with communities to create innovative policy and financing solutions that provide affordable homes for the people of Massachusetts. Since 1990, it has used its capital sources to provide $1.4 billion in long-term loans for the financing of 26,000 apartments and it has partnered with lenders to provide $3.7 billion in mortgage financing to help 21,000 families purchase their first home through its ONE Mortgage Program.  In addition, MHP has provided technical assistance to over 300 communities while its Center for Housing Data has been a strong and credible voice at the State House and across the Commonwealth on the compelling need for new housing at all price levels.

Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) promotes healthy and diverse communities, protects critical environmental resources and working landscapes, advocates for housing and transportation choices, and supports equitable community development and reinvestment.

Metropolitan Area Planning Council

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is the regional planning agency serving the people who live and work in the 101 cities and towns of Greater Boston. MAPC’s mission is promoting smart growth and regional collaboration. Learn more and read our blog at, and follow MAPC on Twitter and Facebook @MAPCMetroBoston.