Wu hints at housing tax incentives, moves to overhaul zoning

Planning department will be re-organized to launch new zoning initiatives

FRUSTRATED BY THE slow pace of housing development in the city, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday said she is moving forward with a zoning reform initiative and also considering new tax incentives to speed up production.

Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Wu offered few details on the tax incentives, but said the city is “strongly considering a time-limited tax incentive program for housing creation to sustain the momentum we need to see in our housing pipeline.” She also highlighted an initiative announced earlier this year offering tax breaks to turn office buildings into housing units.

The mayor, who pledged from the start of her administration to overhaul Boston’s complex and bloated zoning code, now has data in hand from a new report and another planning re-organization in sight. The new report “confirms what we’ve all known here for a while now – our zoning code isn’t just outdated, it’s long, dense, and internally inconsistent in ways that make planning confusing and unpredictable,” Wu said. The city will embark on a re-zoning plan to streamline and modernize the patchwork of code, she said.

Boston’s 4,000-page code, which has not been comprehensively updated since 1965, dwarfs comparable and even larger metropolitan city zoning codes. It is nearly 40 percent longer than that of New York City, which has 13 times Boston’s population and six times its land area, the city said. 

The report released alongside Wu’s speech identifies the zoning code’s length and inconsistencies as core impediments to planning. Because of inconsistencies across neighborhoods and even small overlay districts, projects require more variances in Boston than other comparable cities. About 90 percent of construction in the city requires these variances, which allow projects to be built when they do not conform to the zoning code. This can make the code, the city notes, completely inaccessible to the average Bostonian. 

“With so many nonconformities, there’s no ‘truth’ in the Boston Zoning Code as written: in other words, someone cannot simply review it and quickly understand development patterns in the city,”  writes report author Sara Bronin, a Cornell University professor and director of the National Zoning Atlas. “It diverges too greatly from built reality.”

This may be because, over the last six decades, the code has been updated in a “piecemeal” approach, Bronin writes.

“Paradoxically, the much-amended Zoning Code has not kept up with the changing times,” she wrote. “Rather, it has become detached from modern realities – and ignored in practice.”

Wu ran for office on a pledge to “abolish” the Boston Planning and Development Agency, arguing its structures were too opaque and its interests too development-oriented. During her tenure so far, Wu has announced restructuring changes to the agency, bringing in Arthur Jemison as both the city’s chief of planning and director of the BPDA.

“We take seriously the recommendations in the report and will tailor our response to Boston’s needs – including exploring how to build design recommendations into the code that improve equitable access but protect the ability for neighborhoods to maintain their unique character,” Jemison said in a statement. “We need a solid policy foundation and a modern zoning code to enforce a structure of accountability for growth.”

The city’s planning department will be significantly restructured, Wu said, adding new zoning reform and zoning compliance teams and replacing the previous neighborhood planning team with a new comprehensive planning team. Squares & Streets – the first “major planning and rezoning initiative” under the new planning department – will launch this weekend at Dorchester Open Streets.

Zoning reform, Wu says, is central to a city-wide planning strategy. In an episode of The Codcast this year, Wu said the issue isn’t a lack of process, but too much of it that isn’t tailored to the current needs.

“I’m not sure it’s possible to have more process on development than we do right now,” she said at the time. There are “community leaders who are going to two, three community meetings a week, sometimes multiple on the same night or trading off just so that they can cover everything because of the scale and pace of abutters’ meetings attached to everything, when in fact that is the sign of a broken system,” she said.

At the Chamber event, Wu said the planning and development process needs significant streamlining, pledging to pursue initiatives that “will cut what has historically been a three- to five-year process of rezoning down to six to nine months, and make our planning overall more transparent and collaborative.”

Outside pressures are also compounding the housing shortage in Boston and across the state. Interest rates, which are at the highest points in 20 years, mean “we’re not seeing approvals translate into shovels in the ground,” Wu said.

Her comments echoed new state Housing Secretary Ed Augustus, who said on The Codcast last week that soaring interest rates are crunching the housing market by raising the underlying cost of projects and reducing the number of units that can be created.

The mayor’s comment drew enthusiastic response from the assembled business leaders, many of whom have been critical of her approach to development reform.

“Reducing red tape and encouraging housing creation across all price levels is a critical step Boston can take to address the housing crisis,” Greg Vasil, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, said in a statement. The real estate group is committed to a pricey fight against Wu’s rent control proposal. “We applaud Mayor Wu for embracing much-needed zoning reforms that will streamline housing approval and for promoting different types of housing creation, such as mixed-use projects and housing closer to public transit,” Vasil said. “We are ready to partner with the Mayor to ensure that these common sense reforms are implemented as soon as possible.”
Jim Rooney, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, thanked her for positive energy and “willingness to face the challenges in a collaborative way with the business community.”