In January 2021, the Massachusetts Legislature adopted an Economic Development Bond Bill (H.5250) that made long-overdue changes to the state’s Zoning Act. The “Housing Choices” sections of the bill made it easier for municipalities to adopt pro-housing zoning changes, discourage meritless anti-housing lawsuits, and require each municipality in the MBTA district to zone for multifamily housing by right. The new multifamily zoning requirement could be a tremendous opportunity for the region and its municipalities. Of the 175 MBTA communities across the Commonwealth subject to these new requirements, 97 are in the MAPC region.
The law created a new section—Section 3A—in the Zoning Act and authorized the Executive Office of Economic Development (EOHED) to develop guidelines for implementation of the requirements. On March 21, 2022, MAPC submitted public comments on the draft guidelines for the new Section 3A.
MAPC strongly supports the opportunity Section 3A presents to expand housing choice across our region. We hope that strong, clear, and reasonable guidance will help the Commonwealth to become more sustainable and equitable, while expanding housing opportunities to people throughout the MBTA district.
It is paramount that municipalities use opportunities like Section 3A to address racial inequities and other disparate impacts of longstanding housing policies. These policies, including many that continue to this day, have excluded people of color and low-income households from many communities in the Commonwealth. To make a significant dent in the region’s segregation by race and income, MAPC strongly believes the guidelines should provide cities and towns with the tools to zone for affordable units and larger units suitable for families
Although the statute does not require affordability, there is no reason that DHCD cannot adopt guidelines that provide meaningful incentives for the creation of affordable housing. The statute already requires the creation of units that are “suitable for families with children,” but the guidelines should go farther in encouraging such units. Specifically, we suggest:
- The guidelines should provide incentives for communities to adopt inclusionary zoning for their qualifying district or sub-districts. One way of doing this is to give extra weight to deed-restricted affordable housing units when calculating overall unit capacity.
- The guidelines should also provide similar incentives for communities that adopt MGL Chapter 40R Smart Growth Overlay Districts (as all or part of their Section 3A district), which ensures that at least 20 percent of the units built in the district will be affordable.
- The guidelines should require district parking regulations to be set on a per-unit, rather than per-bedroom, basis to avoid disincentivizing the production of multi-bedroom units. The guidelines should also require municipalities to assume a minimum of 15 percent family-sized units when calculating unit capacity.
For the statute to result in truly transit-oriented housing development, and not just housing that happens to be adjacent to transit, the guidelines should include additional language.
- The guidelines should require at least three-fourths of the district, rather than half, to be within a half-mile walking distance of a MBTA. The guidelines should also establish standards for calculating walking distance based on GIS data, planned projects, and unmapped local connections.
- The guidelines should allow communities with more than one station area to split their unit capacity among those stations. However, the guidelines should also direct these municipalities to prioritize rezoning in the station area(s) most consistent with the Commonwealth’s Sustainable Development Principles and in areas with the highest levels of walkability, affordability, and transit access to jobs.
- The minimum district acreage should be reduced from 50 to 25 acres to allow smaller districts more appropriate for small, slower-growth communities.
To reconcile the need for a substantial long-term increase in multifamily zoning capacity with local concerns about the scale and pace of development, MAPC recommends a slightly different approach to unit capacity. “Minimum unit capacity” is the minimum number of housing units that a city or town's new zoning must allow by-right. Currently, minimum unit capacity is strictly defined by the type of transit station in a municipality.
- MAPC encourages the use of a formula-based approach that provides a tailored minimum unit capacity for each municipality, rather than assigning capacity requirements based on transit categories.
- The guidelines should allow a phased approach that sets a lower overall target for the initial rezoning, followed by increases in the minimum unit capacity at regular intervals.
- Right now, the lowest minimum unit capacity is 750 units. Updated guidelines should set a lower minimum unit capacity of no more than 375 units.
- In each municipality, minimum capacity should be capped at 25 percent of existing housing stock, or a phased equivalent.
Other key comments in MAPC’s letter focus on:
- Calculating minimum gross density
- Barriers to as-of-right development
- Determination of compliance
- Submission requirements
Please read MAPC’s full comment letter here.