New report highlights zoning policies that limit metro Boston housing

by Michael M. Mazek

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has made housing development one of his administration’s top priorities. Several mayors throughout the state, including Boston’s Marty Walsh and a coalition of mayors from the Greater Boston area, have lent support to the governor through their own policy initiatives. Still, it remains to be seen if these ambitious goals will actually improve the affordable housing situation the entire state currently faces.

A new study commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, in conjunction with several local groups including the Massachusetts Association of Realtors and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, lays out the issues at stake in no uncertain terms. Just five pages into the report, its executive summary names municipal-level zoning and land use policies as a key impediment to housing supply throughout the Boston metro area, not to mention much of Massachusetts.

“Municipalities have been over-restricting housing development relative to need,” the report explained. Out of the 351 different cities and towns recognized in Massachusetts, each one “adopts its own zoning ordinance or bylaw, and many are hundreds of pages long. It is hard for state-level policymakers and metropolitan-area planners to understand the system of regulation, as it functions for the whole region.”

The report breaks down this and other issues at play in the statewide housing crunch. While its findings and recommendations apply specifically to multifamily real estate development, they may serve as a roadmap for changes that could be coming to the entire system of real estate development as it currently exists in the Bay State.

  • The approval process: While the Smart Growth report grants that the state’s laws concerning local zoning restrictions are “flexible,” it also calls them “political, ad hoc, unpredictable, time-consuming and discretionary.” Because any changes or additions to local zoning rules must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the local planning council in question, it’s often difficult for new housing developments to get off the ground. Gov. Baker’s Housing Choice Bill, which has been repeatedly swatted down in the state legislature, hopes to tackle this exact problem by changing the state’s laws so that zoning changes can pass with only a simple majority vote.
  • Mixed-use developments: Another double-edged sword, according to Smart Growth: the increased popularity of mixed-use development. Today, the new housing projects that do make it through municipal planning officials are often tied to proposals retail space, like shopping centers or an existing entertainment district. But the study argues that this strategy “might become problematic as demand for new retail space wanes. There may be a need to shift the strategy towards residential-only development in or near mixed-use hubs and shopping centers.”
  • Height, density and “neighborhood character”: Finally, the executive summary argues that municipalities will need to get more creative when it comes to zoning for more housing. Height and density restrictions are some of the biggest hurdles for multifamily development in particular, but they also tend to box out proposals for owner-occupied condos in more dense arrangements. These restrictions are enacted with the intention of preserving a neighborhood’s “character” or historical value, but these traits needn’t be exclusive of residential development. “Most municipalities highly restrict height and density of development, such that buildout does not satisfy demand,” the report explained. “There are ways to allow incremental growth in residential neighborhoods while protecting the character of neighborhoods.”

The full report highlights specific examples of local regulations that impede housing development and could prevent the Greater Boston area from reaching its goal of adding tens of thousands of new housing units in the next several years. Check out the full report here.

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