On housing, Wu should look to Somerville

The key is zoning, and SomerVision got it right

FOR OVER TWO DECADES, solving Boston’s housing crisis has been the Holy Grail for its city’s mayors. For newly elected Michelle Wu, who has recently announced plans to study how to make housing more affordable, she might want to look two miles to the north to the city of Somerville for inspiration.

The term “housing crisis” first appeared in the Boston Globe on October 1, 1920, in response to widespread tenant evictions by property owners seeking to preempt a state law that would limit rent increases over 25 percent. Since then, the term has fully saturated Boston’s vernacular.

And yet, despite general housing growth over the last 20-plus years, with peak growth occurring during the Martin J. Walsh administration, Boston continues to fall further behind the number of units it actually needs in order to house its citizens.

The below graph shows the recent year over year increase of housing units (in blue) against the city’s population growth (in orange). On average, Boston’s yearly rate of housing creation is less than half of what is needed in order to meet new growth.

Despite all sorts of initiatives to solve the crisis, from good public policy, such as linkage payments and inclusionary development, to bad, such as rent control, Boston has been unable, or unwilling to change the one thing that would go to the heart of the problem — zoning, those regulations that govern housing’s very creation.

Zoning is a land-use regulatory tool that first began in New York City in the early 1900s but is now prevalent in most every city and town throughout the US. It is the set of rules that govern what can and cannot be built in a neighborhood or sub-neighborhood. Zoning defines where certain types of buildings and uses may be built — from a one-family home, to a multifamily apartment building, to a shopping mall, to a public zoo. It defines how tall and dense a building may be built, as well as the size of the front, side, and rear yards. These rules govern everything from the number of parking spaces to whether affordable housing units are required within the project.

Historically, zoning has been used to exclude the very type of housing — multifamily housing — that the region needs. This disproportionately targets poorer-income residents, often Black and brown households.  This is true of zoning laws in and around Boston. According to the The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, an organization focused on eliminating housing discrimination, almost half of Greater Boston communities are zoned primarily for one-family uses.

In Boston, on account of its antiquated zoning laws, it’s easier to build a leather tannery than it is to site an apartment building. The zoning code is written in such a way that it is nearly impossible to build multi-family housing, without going through the time consuming and costly process to obtain a zoning variance. Even then, projects are at the mercy of abutters and neighborhood associations that are often diametrically opposed to any form of development in their backyards, particularly projects with a higher unit count.

From time to time, Boston has tried to make incremental changes to its zoning code, to protect against the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, mentality. Most recently, the Boston City Council voted to remove minimum parking requirements on affordable housing projects.

But for every step forward, there are three steps back, such as in South Boston, where a 2016 amendment to the code requires 1.5 parking spaces for every unit of housing with two or more bedrooms. Now, in order to build a new triple-decker in South Boston, it would require five parking spaces to be built onsite. This not only increases the cost of construction by tens of thousands of dollars per unit, it floods the neighborhood with automobiles, at a time when communities are looking to increase public transit options instead.

No amount of nibbling around the edges will cure Boston of its problem. What’s needed here is a complete reboot.

Boston is not the only older New England municipality to suffer zoning woes. Thankfully, many of its suburban counterparts have been forced to build greater density and affordability through state mandated laws. But some communities are actually embracing reform, and seeing results to match.

Somerville is one of those communities. According to Joe Curtatone, who served as the city’s mayor from 2004 to 2021, before Somerville began rewriting its zoning laws, only 23 lots within the entire city conformed zoning-wise with the buildings that sat upon them. Everything else required some form of zoning relief to build what was currently there, to say nothing of redevelopment.

And so the city launched “SomerVision,” a seven year public planning exercise that sought to determine the collective goals of the community. To hear Curtatone talk about the exercise, it was far more than just amending a law, but rather a re-baptism for his city.

“How do we think about what we want to be? What are the values we are going to lead with?” he asked.  “Zoning is the critical thread to tie everything together.”

Lofty rhetoric from a lunch-pail politician? Not quite. Those who study cities marvel at the success Somerville achieved on his watch. All the while, as Curtatone points out, the city made sure to pay close attention to keeping its diversity and art community intact.

When it came time to rezone, or “up-zone,” the city, as its planning director George Proakis explains, the plan was to start from scratch. Proakis compared the old zoning to an obsolete computer running an ineffective program, wherein no amount of tinkering would rescue it. At community meetings, he would show old pictures of computers, and explain that their operating system was obsolete.

To get the proper “platform,” the plan was to reverse-engineer the process. The city looked at the larger buildings that made it through the old zoning process, then re-wrote the code to make those projects allowable without needing to obtain variances or other zoning relief.

They also did something extremely sensible – they removed parking minimums from most developments. On this, Curtatone offers, “If you plan a city for cars, that’s what you are going to get.”

Boston, take note.

There are other compelling portions to Somerville’s new code that go well beyond the standard use and dimensional requirements of typical zoning. A “green score” allows for greater flexibility for landscaping and open space. The “pedestrian streets” designation limits curb cuts and driveways from being placed in certain locations that are in a high walk-zone area, and requires ground floor amenities such as retail uses, rather than just a blank wall.  There are also broad requirements for affordability and environmental design.

One of the more ambitious rules requires large lab buildings to be LEED Platinum certified, the designation that refers to superior construction techniques that prioritize principles of environmental design.

“We were told it couldn’t be done,” Proakis told me. “But now we are seeing the building of six LEED Platinum labs in the city.”

That kind of execution is exactly what Boston could use. I asked Proakis who was responsible for the nuts and bolts of the Somerville exercise. He was quick to confess: “Dan Bartman is the mastermind behind the code,” he said.

I asked Proakis if such a public revelation might cause him to lose his ace. “If it happened, I would shake his hand and say good for you, because honestly, it probably should.”

Meet the Author

Mike Ross

Real estate attorney/Former Boston city councilor, Prince Lobel
A gracious response to be sure. But then again, this is Somerville, a city that continues to impress. Perhaps its swagger comes from being in the shadow of Boston, where the brighter glow often stymies bolder initiatives. But if Somerville is a laboratory for good ideas, Mayor Wu might want to consider adopting the one that could make the greatest impact.

Mike Ross is a former Boston City Councilor, a real estate attorney at the law firm of Prince Lobel, and an occasional contributor to various publications.