Local Zoning is Making it Difficult to Build Housing Around Boston. That’s Raising Prices for Everyone.

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Small, subjective local decisions and bylaw changes tip the balance away from multifamily housing production and create hurdles for even good-quality development to succeed, found a report released today on local zoning and multifamily housing in the cities and towns surrounding Boston.

The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston” reveals that a series of small local decisions, bylaw changes, and barriers to building collectively ensure that housing isn’t being built at fast enough rates.

The study looks at the 100 cities and towns surrounding Boston in the MAPC region – excluding Boston itself, which is already producing housing at high rates and which operates under a completely different zoning statute from the rest of the Commonwealth.

Throughout Massachusetts, one of every four renters and one of every ten homeowners is “extremely cost burdened” – meaning they pay over 50 percent of their income for housing.

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 – an increase of only 5.2 percent. With supply not keeping pace with demand, there is more competition for existing units and costs rise.

“The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston” is the first study in 15 years to systemically review zoning and permitting in Greater Boston. Its findings paint a dismal picture as the region struggles with these high costs and inadequate supply.

The study was completed by researcher Amy Dain and funded by MAPC, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, Home Builders & Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, Massachusetts Association of Realtors, Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP), and MassHousing.

Two-thirds of Greater Boston municipalities have provisions for as-of-right multi-family zoning – meaning that landowners have a right to build projects that meet certain zoning specifications. However, only 14 percent of all units built between 2015 and 2017 were as-of-right projects – indicating that there may be zoning barriers to multifamily development, even with as-of-right zoning.

Dain identifies common barriers to construction in the report:

  • Limited land area zoned: Very little land area is actually zoned for multi-family housing, and much of that is already built to capacity
  • Low density zoning: Height, density restrictions, and minimum parcel sizes limit the potential to build
  • Dimensional requirements
  • Unpredictable and time-consuming approval processes
  • Age restrictions
  • Bedroom restrictions
  • High parking requirements
  • Mixed use requirements
  • High affordability requirements

Often these barriers are combined into provisions that make it extremely logistically and economically difficult to build multifamily developments.

Dain also highlights that multi-family housing that is getting built isn’t necessarily getting built in a sustainable way. Many cities and towns are permitting multi-family development in car-centric locations on the periphery of town – away from jobs, commercial centers, and public transportation. This isolates these developments and makes them especially dependent on cars.

Many municipalities have not rezoned any land around their train stations for denser development, missing opportunities for transit-oriented development that would lessen residents’ need for vehicles.

While municipalities are permitting mixed-use zoning in centers, many have been cautious about allowing development in historic centers. While some cities and towns are building transit-oriented developments, many municipalities have not rezoned any land around train stations for denser development.

Dain identifies four ways to increase production and produce housing in a sustainable, smart way:

  1. Zone more land for multi-family housing - and allow more height. We can build more housing in a relatively small amount of land area with less height restrictions.
  2. Reform approval processes for flexibility and predictability.
  3. Allow multi-family housing next to mixed-use hubs (and not just as part of mixed-use developments!)
  4. Allow more housing in centers and near transit, and plan connected growth nodes on the edges.

“The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston” definitively shows that our cities and towns aren’t doing enough to prevent the affordability crisis in our region. Difficult-to-navigate local zoning procedures and almost impossible to achieve zoning requirements bottleneck development, limit housing supply, and raise costs. To ensure that our region continues to experience economic growth, we need to house our workers. To do that, Dain’s research shows that cities and towns must step up to change impossible standards and allow new development, especially in town centers, near transit, and near commercial hubs.