Housing Choice Plus | Broken Zoning, Unaffordable Homes: What Can Be Done?

What’s the Problem?

Massachusetts is in the midst of a housing crisis that threatens our communities, our economic success, and our quality of life. For years now, advocates have been calling for an update to the Commonwealth’s outdated zoning and housing rules. Businesses are debating whether to locate in Massachusetts because the high cost of housing makes it difficult to attract and retain employees. And communities across the Commonwealth are struggling to create vibrant, walkable places where people want to live and work.There are several bills pending before the Massachusetts state legislature that would update our outdated zoning laws and help the Commonwealth build the housing it needs. These bills include the Governor’s Housing Choice bill and the Great Neighborhoods bill, which, taken together, will offer meaningful reform and help us meet today’s needs and tomorrow’s demand.

But time’s running out for both pieces of legislation – the Massachusetts Legislature needs to pass the bills by the end of the legislative session on Tuesday, July 31. As part of an ongoing series, we’re highlighting some of MAPC’s priorities that we hope will be included in the legislation that makes it to the Governor’s desk.

One Solution: Expanding on Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Bill

In December, Governor Charlie Baker announced his “Housing Choice Initiative,” aiming to build 135,000 new homes in Massachusetts over the next eight years and to set aside funds to reward cities and towns for encouraging housing production. The same day, he filed “An Act to Promote Housing Choices.”

The Housing Choice bill introduces reforms that would make it easier to change local zoning and to approve special permits in certain circumstances. Right now, these changes require the votes of a two-thirds supermajority by a town meeting or a town or city council to pass – an extremely high threshold out of line with most of the nation. The Housing Choice legislation would require only a simple majority to approve zoning changes and special permits.

We applaud the Governor for stepping up with a thoughtful legislative proposal to stimulate housing in locations that are appropriate for growth. It’s important that these reforms pass this session – and we think that we need to do more to encourage the kind of housing production we all want to see. To effectively combat challenges in Massachusetts, cities and towns also need new zoning tools that would help them proactively plan for their future, protect open space, and ensure that a greater diversity of housing types will be built.

We are advocating for what we call “Housing Choice Plus” and asking that the Legislature add some important reforms from the Great Neighborhoods bill to the Housing Choice Bill. These common-sense techniques include:

  • Improving how cluster bylaws work: Cluster zoning saves open space by providing developers with the option to “cluster” homes on smaller lots if the plan permanently conserves a portion of adjacent land.
  • Allowing for accessory dwelling units: ADUs, sometimes called in-law suites, are a low-impact way to diversify housing options, provide more affordable homes for young families or older adults, and help the homeowner with additional income through rent.
  • Limiting frivolous appeals, which add cost and delay to decisions that local boards have already made.
  • Adding site plan review to the state statute, providing statewide standards for reviewing and attaching requirements to project proposals
  • Providing online training for local decision-making boards

There are some highly impactful ideas that should also be part of the conversation, including: allowing municipalities to collect development impact fees to offset the costs of new development; establishing a standard for multi-family zoning; and prohibiting zoning actions that discriminate on the basis of race, income, and family status.

While these reforms may be politically challenging, they directly respond to the challenges we face today and will help us achieve a stronger, more inclusive future.

Take action!

With just a few weeks left in the legislative session, it’s important that the legislature take up these bills and pass meaningful reform. There are common sense measures we can and should make this year to encourage more homes to be built and provide needed zoning tools to our municipalities.

Your legislator needs to know that these solutions have constituent support! Please take the time – now – to reach out to them and tell them that you want these important bills to move forward this session.

Click here to find out who your legislators are and then call or email them to make your voice heard! Click on the names of your state senator and state representative at the bottom of the page to find their phone number, email, and mailing address.

You can use this message for your call or email:

[Ask to speak with a staff member in the Senator or Representative’s office]

“Hello, my name is [NAME] from [CITY, TOWN, or NEIGHBORHOOD] in the [Senator/Representative]’s district.

I support legislation updating our outdated zoning and housing rules, including the Governor’s Housing Choice bill and the Great Neighborhoods bill. We’re in the middle of a housing crisis and we need to do something this session to address it. Please weigh in with the [Speaker/Senate President] and ask them to move these important bills and encourage reform.

Thank you for your time!

Learn More

Read the other blogs in MAPC’s series “Broken Zoning, Unaffordable Homes: What Can Be Done?”

  • Accessory Dwelling Units – ADUs are a low-impact way to diversify housing options, provide more affordable homes for young families or older adults, and help the homeowner with additional income through rent.
  • Multi-Family Housing – Metropolitan Boston needs to build an average 16,000 new homes a year to meet demand. But between 2010 and 2017, we averaged just over 10,000 units per year. One of the most important things that lawmakers can do to address the housing crisis is to set a standard for multi-family housing, which is defined as having three or more housing units in a building.