Huge upside to new MBTA upzoning guidelines

They can help expand affordable housing, address segregation

IN THE 2021 Greater Boston Housing Report Card, the Boston Foundation highlighted how the pandemic has amplified what was already one of Greater Boston’s most pressing needs – adequate housing supply in smart, sustainable, transit-accessible locations. Even before the pandemic, construction failed to keep pace with affordable housing goals set just a few years earlier. As post-pandemic home prices continue to rise, building on innovations in zoning and transit-oriented housing is essential for housing equity.

To that end, we and other housing advocates were delighted that the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation that not only allows local zoning laws to be changed by a simple majority, rather than the supermajority requirements that stalled so many projects, but also includes an upzoning requirement for communities that contain or are adjacent to MBTA stations.

These zoning changes could spur the development of new housing near mass transit, resulting in thousands of new housing units across the region with access to jobs and economic centers, while addressing the lack of supply that has driven housing unaffordability across the region, with the most significant impact felt by communities of color in the urban core.

While the law itself has great weight, much of its implementation and impact on local zoning are being shaped by the Commonwealth’s Department of Housing and Economic Development. The agency’s draft guidelines lay out the housing unit capacity for each municipality’s multifamily zoning district. Taken together, the zoning change could yield tens of thousands of new multifamily housing units.

While the guidelines do not include any requirements for affordability in the new housing in these districts, we expect that affordable housing developers will participate in new housing production and that many of the units built will be modest-sized new homes suitable for families with rental vouchers and for first-time and first-generation homebuyers.

Learn more about the new guidelines from Boston Indicators

This is a remarkable first step. But even as we work to shape the new guidelines, we should do more to amplify their impact. In a high-cost state like Massachusetts, we will almost certainly require additional subsidies to reach affordability for lower-income renters and homebuyers. The state should look to increase funding for housing programs through the state housing bond bill to support the production of more new affordable housing units in these new locations. In addition, the state should increase funding for the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program, the Alternative Housing Voucher Program, and other renter supports to bridge the affordability gap for low-income households.

The potential impact of this law could also be undone if municipalities simply choose not to comply with it. For those that do not comply, the state will withhold state grant money from three programs — the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, and the MassWorks infrastructure program.  Wealthier communities that do not rely on these state programs may vote to forego state funding.

These are some of the same communities that have historically blocked affordable and multifamily housing production near transit. Each community must step up and do their fair share and earn the benefits they have extracted through exclusionary zoning practices.

Too often, just and equitable housing policy has been stymied by small but vocal and engaged groups. Research by Boston University’s Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Max Palmer, published in their book Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, shows that land use institutions and policies, from local zoning boards to the courts, have historically amplified the voices of unrepresentative groups of community residents, who are able to block new housing in places that need it. It is incumbent on all of us who supported this new law in the Legislature to ensure that its provisions avoid this trap and are enacted by our local communities.

In the Boston Foundation’s 2019 Housing Report Card, we explored the relationship between housing production and segregation. We found that communities that increased multifamily housing production saw greater reductions in segregation.

There is also a strong link between housing policy and the racial wealth gap. Generations of institutionalized racism have entrenched segregation and—even though the law prevents outright discrimination— established patterns and home rule have served to maintain the status quo. The legislation passed last year provides the tools to counter this history. Cities and towns have the capacity to play a crucial role in solving our housing problem, and we as citizens need to keep the pressure on them to do so.

Many of us recently recognized the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He poignantly said, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

Meet the Author

Lee Pelton

President and CEO, Boston Foundation
That hard work toward progress in housing takes many forms – and happens, often in sparsely attended but critically important committee meetings in cities and towns across the Commonwealth. These upzoning provisions lessen that burden by creating a path toward more affordable housing. It is up to all of us to ensure that we use it.

M. Lee Pelton is the president and CEO of the Boston Foundation.