Landmark Report Shows State Needs Multifamily Zoning Requirements

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Researcher Amy Dain’s landmark, 123-page report on the region’s planning for multifamily housing, commissioned by a coalition headed by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, uncovered hopeful trends which have often been overlooked in the larger housing production conversation.

Dain showed that multifamily development is not wholly foreign to Boston’s suburbs. Indeed, 83 of the surveyed cities and towns have explicit provisions in their zoning for mixed-use development, although this includes towns with so-called “floating zoning” categories intended for a single project and never used again. By Dain’s count, three-quarters of Boston’s suburbs permitted multifamily projects in recent years, excluding Chapter 40B affordable housing projects. A significant number of these towns have even intentionally zoned for multifamily development as part of mixed-use plans for malls and commercial strips, industrial areas and town centers.

Setting aside that important caveat, however, a central, troubling theme emerges from the Dain report: Land use decisions and plans in many towns and cities have a tenuous relationship with reality.

Many towns are interested in allowing limited multifamily developments in their historic centers, but fragmented land ownership, insufficiently permissive zoning and the political difficulty of making any changes to well-loved places have pushed a majority of multifamily development to peripheral sites like industrial areas and auto-dominated commercial strips.

“For municipal decision-makers, housing in the periphery might mean new residents exit right onto the highway instead of clogging local roads,” Dain wrote. “The new housing might not be in a setting where they frequently spend time, so if it turns out to be unattractive, it would not particularly affect their quality of life.”

Resistance to change is an all-too-human trait, but unfortunately solving our intertwined problems of housing production, traffic and climate change require political leaders who can convince constituents to swallow hard and accept a modicum of development closer to home.

Unfortunately, all these new residents in unwalkable, peripheral developments cannot teleport every time they needed to go anywhere. The more multifamily projects are built adjacent to highway offramps, the more greenhouse gas-spewing cars will spend time on the road, adding to our worst-in-the-nation traffic and doing nothing to add vitality to the historic centers of our communities.

If Dain’s report does one thing, it should open more ears to voices who say Gov. Charlie Baker’s preferred solution to the housing crisis, which would reduce the threshold needed for zoning changes at the local level from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority, is necessary but not sufficient.

If the forces of progress are to have a fighting chance at getting sensible land-use policies adopted, they cannot be burdened with trying to convince a supermajority to back an idea. The legislature should adopt Baker’s bill without further delay. However, Dain’s exhaustive data-gathering makes clear that when left to their own devices towns have been inadequate stewards of land use policy. Well-thought-out requirements and incentives need to be established at a state level so that more communities permit realistically sized multifamily projects in walkable areas, public transportation nodes and, perhaps, in single-family neighborhoods as well.