Multi-Family Housing | 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 For years now, advocates have been calling for an update to the Commonwealth’s outdated zoning and housing rules.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want to live and work.There are several bills pending before the Massachusetts state legislature that would update our outdated zoning laws and help the Commonwealth build the housing it needs.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: Multi-Family Housing Zones

Day after day, there are new stories, data, and research that reveal that homes are unaffordable for many and we’re not building enough new housing to meet current or future demand. We know that our economic stability depends on having adequate and affordable housing for people in our region. In Metro Boston, apartments and condos are particularly needed. Our projections show that nearly two-thirds of housing demand is for multi-family units.

Just consider the following:

  • 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.
  • 10 municipalities accounted for two-thirds of all multi-family units permitted in Massachusetts between 2010 and 2016, with Boston alone accounting for one-third.
  • One out every 10 homeowners in Metro Boston pays more than half their income for housing and 25 percent of renters in Metro Boston pay more than half of their income for housing.

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.

Essentially, we need to ask that municipalities update their zoning to allow for multi-family housing to be built. Too many municipalities do not allow multi-family housing to be built, and many others place so many restrictions on their multi-family zones that they essentially are unbuildable.  There a number of ways this can be accomplished.

The Great Neighborhoods bill outlines two possible approaches. The first would simply direct municipalities to designate a district where multi-family construction would be allowed. This leaves the details up to the individual municipality for how to accommodate the new homes. The second approach would set a sliding scale of density targets for the multi-family zone, but allow for exemptions in places where the housing demand is not as strong.

Building more apartments and condos is essential to meeting our housing needs. They are a key ingredient in solving our housing challenge, especially for older adults looking to downsize and young adults and families looking for their first home. We need to be able to meet their needs today and far into the future.

Take action!

With just a few weeks left in the legislative session, it’s important that the legislature pass meaningful reform. The Great Neighborhood bill and Housing Choice bill 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.
  • Housing Choice Plus – MAPC is 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. Learn more about what that means!