Why the MBTA is key — to easing the housing crunch

New multi-family zoning is crucial step in addressing the crisis

MASSACHUSETTS IS EXPERIENCING a severe housing crisis. Talk to anyone who has tried to purchase a home in the past few years or tried to find an affordable apartment and you will hear the frustration of people who are just trying to find a place to live.

The average price of a home in the state rose to nearly half a million dollars in 2021. The home-buying markets are staggeringly competitive and increasingly inaccessible for working people. Long time residents have been priced out of their communities because of rising rent costs. First-time home-buyers who’ve been saving for years are being out-bid in an increasingly crowded market.

This crisis is being felt in communities across the Commonwealth, especially in Gateway Cities where the cost of housing has historically been lower and more affordable for working people. Massachusetts’ housing crisis can only be sustainably addressed through a robust increase in the supply of housing.  Fortunately, steps have been taken recently to increase the supply of housing in MBTA communities.

The 2021 Economic Development Bill signed by Gov. Baker changes the zoning requirements for MBTA communities. The bill includes a provision, championed by Rep. Andy X. Vargas of Haverhill and Rep.  Kevin Honan of Allston, requiring that MBTA communities must have at least one zoning district no more than a half mile away from an MBTA station that provides zoning that allows for development of multi-family homes.

The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has recently released draft guidelines for MBTA communities to adopt to comply with this new law. The guidelines set the number of housing units that these multi-family zoning districts must allow for, which is calculated by taking into account the existing housing supply and the level of transit service that exists in the community. The minimum amount of housing that these communities need to allow for is 750 units; most communities must zone for more depending on the existing supply of housing and their level of transit service as categorized by DHCD.

The guidelines do not set a specific amount that communities must develop, rather they set a minimum amount that these zoning districts must allow for. Furthermore, DHCD’s guidelines require that development proposals must adhere to municipal water and infrastructure requirements like any other development. This is not a production mandate. The purpose of this law is to legalize housing development near transit corridors and ensure that the responsibility of housing Massachusetts residents is shared across municipalities.

Zoning changes are never without controversy or pushback. Each municipality in Massachusetts dictates its own zoning code. This decentralized approach to land use has resulted in a system which does not adapt quickly or comprehensively to the changing needs of people in our Commonwealth. Because zoning is so hyper-localized, changing it happens too slowly and is often dictated by a small group of individuals who do not always represent the needs of the larger community. As we see the housing crisis continue to get worse every year, it’s become clear that the Commonwealth needs to have a stronger response. This law is necessary to help push through needed zoning changes that may have never otherwise happened.

If we are serious about providing housing options for the people of Massachusetts, we must have a shared responsibility to increase our overall housing supply. Our state’s limited supply of housing does not accommodate the people that live here. Currently, the number of homes produced annually in Massachusetts is less than half of the annual production rate during the 1960s-80s. This housing scarcity continues to drive up housing prices across the board.

As Massachusetts continues to thrive and add jobs, we risk our competitive advantage if workers can’t find a place to live. Job creation continues to outstrip housing creation. This is an unsustainable trend. Our economic success depends on greater housing creation. Failure to meet this challenge signals that we are not serious about providing the workforce our employers need to continue to grow. It also signals that we are content with people paying more and more for the dignity of a place to live.

The Brookings Institution released a study in 2020 (predating these new zoning requirements) with their recommendations to address Boston’s housing crisis. The study points to restrictive zoning laws as a culprit for Boston’s housing crisis and calls for reform of zoning laws in transit communities as a solution. According to the study: “to allow for more housing to be built in high-demand locations, the state of Massachusetts should adopt a policy that allows moderate-density housing to be built as-of-right within a half mile of transit stations.”

Meet the Author

Andy Vargas

State Representative, Massachusetts Legislature
Meet the Author
The implementation of multi-family zoning in MBTA communities will open doors to new homes in transit-focused areas, something that is essential for working families in the Commonwealth.

Andy Vargas represents the 3rd Essex District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and is vice chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. Nate Robertson is a community planner in the Merrimack Valley focusing on reducing the wealth gap through housing and economic development. He lives in Haverhill, where he also serves on the Planning Board.