Issued Wednesday, January 12, 2022
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 zoning requirement could be a tremendous opportunity for the region and its municipalities.
Last month, the process took a major step forward when EOHED issued draft guidelines for the program. The draft sets targets for zoning capacity and allows creativity in the shape and variety of qualifying districts. EOHED has committed to supporting municipalities as they adopt the necessary zoning, and MAPC is looking forward to providing our communities with the necessary technical assistance. We encourage all of our member municipalities to learn about the new guidelines. You can start with CHAPA’s summary of the guidelines and attend the EOHED webinar scheduled for January 12.
The new requirement is more than just housing policy. With strong and feasible guidance, Section 3A, a new section of MGL c. 40A – the Zoning Act, could deliver transformational transportation, equity, and climate benefits. MAPC has already described the principles that can advance these priorities: focus on production of new units; tailor requirements for local conditions; implement transit-oriented development principles; keep equity at the fore; and create a supported and transparent process. We’ve also shared concrete and actionable recommendations with state partners.
Over the coming weeks, MAPC will be analyzing the guidelines and consulting with our communities and other stakeholders to gather their impressions and questions on the guidelines. We will also be arranging for EOHED staff to attend subregional meetings and other events to share details with our municipalities and gather feedback. All these activities will help MAPC to develop detailed comments on the draft guidelines. In the meantime, our initial review has already identified some key aspects of the guidelines that merit positive recognition, and others that may warrant reconsideration.
- The potential increase in zoning capacity—344,000 housing units—is at a scale sufficient to address the next 20 years of multifamily housing demand. For comparison, MAPC and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute have previously forecasted that the municipalities subject to the law may grow by approximately 215,000 households from 2020 to 2040. While there are many factors to consider when determining how much zoning capacity is “enough,” we applaud HED for setting a forward-looking target that could help meet demand for decades, not just the next few years.
- The draft provisions that allow for the use of subdistricts and overlay districts will allow municipalities to rezone sensitively. While the overall gross density of the qualifying districts must be at least 15 units per acre, allowable density can vary across the district. A community could zone for higher density buildings closer to a transit station and more moderate infill in surrounding neighborhoods, so long as the districtwide average is 15 units per acre.
- For one, the minimum unit capacity requirements assigned to each municipality don’t bear a consistent relationship to level of transit service, housing need, or development opportunity and constraints. Some similarly situated communities have very different requirements, while a 750-unit minimum applies to nearly half of all municipalities subject to the law. A more data-driven formula, such as one already demonstrated by MAPC, could do a better job of providing a rational basis for the local target. In addition to supporting better regional outcomes, a municipal-specific target could encourage municipalities to comply rather than dismissing the program as a “one-size-fits-all" mandate.
- MAPC also strongly believes that the guidelines should include incentives for communities to require affordable units and larger units suitable for families. Any state policy that fails to incentivize affordable units for families will fail to meet the most pressing need in the housing field: the tremendous lack of units that lower-income families with children can afford. Furthermore, such a policy will fail to make a significant dent in the segregation of the region by race, a reality that has been perpetuated by decades of government action. More discussion is needed to determine how the guidelines can address these issues.
- We’ve also heard from city and town officials concerned that the scale of rezoning required—enough to accommodate thousands of units in many communities–may exceed what they can reasonably undertake in the time available. Technical assistance and standardized data and methodologies are essential to helping communities comply and creating transparency for the initiative. Apprehensive communities may also welcome a phased approach, in which they work up to the total minimum unit capacity through a series of rezonings that take place over multiple years. A predictable timeline for gradual full compliance could get more communities to participate and support the program’s long-term success.
We hope the comment period now underway will provide an opportunity for a robust exploration of these recommendations and concerns. MAPC will continue to analyze the guidelines and share our insight with municipalities, stakeholders, and state agencies. We welcome your comments and feedback as we conduct this work. Finally, it’s also important to remember that Section 3A can’t work on its own. Actually getting units built will require funding for local infrastructure, updated wastewater regulations, and reliable transit service. We look forward to working with all our partners to advance the initiatives essential to making Massachusetts an affordable, equitable, and sustainable place to live.