Falmouth is demonstrating that ‘Housing Choice’ can work

Town adopted the zoning plan even though it isn't an MBTA community

IT HAS BEEN A LITTLE over a year since Gov. Charlie  Baker’s “Housing Choice” legislation was signed into law, providing an innovative bundle of tools for municipalities to incentivize housing construction. In a state which has among the nation’s highest home sale prices and lowest residential production numbers, the reaction in many communities seems to be – how do we avoid doing this?

A Concord selectman thinks zoning that might allow a potential 750 housing units in his town is too much to ask. A Newton city councilor is willing to forego some state aid rather than comply with the law’s requirement that MBTA communities zone a district within a half mile of a transit stop to allow for multifamily housing. Some elected leaders in Milton, Belmont, and Arlington also seem to think that passive resistance is the way to go.

In contrast, here in Falmouth, which is not even an MBTA community, the Planning Board and the Town Meeting took a closer look at the Housing Choice law, and found a lot to like. In fact, the town implemented it.

How did this happen? Falmouth, like the rest of the state, has seen housing prices soar in the past year – the median sale price is now well over $500,000, and sales of over $1,000,000 — even for non-waterfront, non-water view properties — are not uncommon. Thanks to the red hot real estate market, and to Airbnb, year-round rental properties in Falmouth have virtually disappeared.

Like many communities, Falmouth  has not met its requirement under chapter 40B to have 10 percent of its year-round housing stock deed restricted as affordable to low and moderate income households –we’re currently at 7.3 percent.

The crying housing need in Falmouth, both to meet our 10 percent subsidized unit goal and to house the burgeoning number of residents who can’t afford to buy a home, is for rentals, both market and subsidized. The question the Planning Board asked was: even with the density incentives allowed by 40B, why had  no private developers built any rental housing in town for decades? And what could the town do to incentivize them?

Using the tools created by Housing Choice, the Planning Board came up with a local zoning bylaw creating a Mixed Residential and Commercial Overlay District, dubbed MRCOD.  To get there, the board looked at all the Business 1 and 2 zoned parcels in town.

While the B-1 area in our historic downtown needed no upgrading, the board saw it could benefit from additional residential density.  And the board looked at the B-2 areas of town, mostly characterized by  40- to 50-year-old  large box stores, strip malls,  and even older small commercial structures, all surrounded by asphalt. It saw an opportunity here.

These are the areas that are now part of the MRCOD district, which encompasses 210 acres of business-zoned land. Property owners within the district are now entitled to rebuild their commercial space, in the same size they now have, but in addition they can add up to 20 rental units per acre, by right. The only requirement is that 25 percent of the units have to be deeded affordable.

The fact that MRCOD projects will only be allowed in pre-existing business developed areas, on the sewer, on the RTA bus route, provides the town with a comfort level that these projects, unlike 40B developments, will not be appearing in residential neighborhoods.

The “by right” provision is a key option in the Housing Choice toolbox, and a key part of MRCOD. If the project complies with the setback, parking, height, lot size, and lot coverage requirements of the bylaw, it will be subject only to the Planning Board’s design guidelines and site plan review. The legal and bureaucratic hurdles that a developer would face under a 40B comprehensive permit process, or even a local special permit process, are thus avoided.

When the Planning Board took MRCOD to Town Meeting, it expected a 20-unit-per-acre-by-right bylaw to be controversial, and it knew that the Housing Choice law allowed this bylaw to pass with only a majority vote, unlike standard zoning bylaws which require two-thirds. The board was pleasantly surprised to see MRCOD win by 151 in favor and 42 opposed — well in excess of two-thirds.

Now, six months after MRCOD’s passage at town meeting and two months after its approval by the attorney general, MRCOD has already generated its first project: The owner of an auto repair shop on Main Street has submitted plans to replace it with a restaurant and 10 residential units. Further down the street, the owners of one of the big box stores with acres of asphalt is talking with the town about building a major rental housing development on their property.

Meet the Author

Eric Turkington

Former state representative, Falmouth
Falmouth provides proof that Housing Choice, thoughtfully implemented, can win widespread community support, and can incentivize developments that provide housing that is desperately needed. To our sister towns across the Commonwealth, Falmouth’s experience shows that Housing Choice should be welcomed, not feared.

Eric Turkington represented Falmouth and the Islands in the state House of Representatives from 1989 to 2009.