Recent research has given us a glimpse of the Commonwealth’s economic future—and it’s not a pretty picture. Boston has the highest cost of living of any major city in the nation. Fewer and fewer companies have their headquarters here. And for many young families, even those making up to $100,000 per year, our high cost of housing makes homeownership an unreachable goal. As a result, it’s no surprise that Massachusetts was the only state in the nation to lose population in 2004. Many business and civic leaders are wringing their hands, trying to determine how we can stop this exodus of talented workers. Housing that is affordable can and must be part of the solution.
The state’s housing shortage threatens the ability of area businesses to attract and retain the workers who are needed to fuel our economic recovery. In order to prevent this housing crisis from further affecting our ability to compete with other states, we must substantially increase the production of a wide range of housing types. To do this, we need to seriously confront the lengthy local permitting process, promote denser and, therefore, more affordable development, and reduce the time it takes to get decisions from appeals that currently take two to four years or more—and that’s after a project has been approved.
Unfortunately, the proposed Land Use Reform Act (LURA) would do just the opposite. LURA allows municipalities to block needed housing and commercial development while eliminating the few protections property owners currently enjoy. It is anti-growth, not smart-growth, legislation, and it will seriously hinder the economic development the Commonwealth so desperately needs.
We would like to believe that all Massachusetts communities are committed to addressing the Commonwealth’s need for housing, but reality shows otherwise. Today, the vast majority of affordable housing can be completed only under the state’s Chapter 40B anti-“snob zoning” law. Although there are some exceptions, many towns operate on an agenda fueled by fear—fear of increased school costs, fear of a changed town “character” —that is supported by complex local zoning requirements and development review processes. The end result in many communities is little or no new affordable housing development.
The Land Use Reform Act would further enhance the ability of cities and towns to fend off, delay, and impose costs on any new development, residential or commercial. Most of the “reforms” it proposes are one-sided and cut back on the limited protections that present law provides to landowners and developers. The bill’s proponents say that LURA gives cities and towns the increased flexibility and better planning tools that they need in order to set their destiny and preserve their character. But there is no reason to believe that those municipalities that failed to plan for growth during the past 30 years will be any more likely to do so under a new set of rules.
If the Legislature is truly intent on addressing the Commonwealth’s housing shortage and maintaining the state’s competitiveness, it should take a different approach. We need to require municipalities to plan for anticipated growth; mandate fair, predictable, timely, and efficient processes for development review; encourage streamlined approval processes; offer density bonuses and other incentives for housing development; and minimize the additional fees and costs attached to new development.
What’s at stake in the LURA debate is not just whether growth in Massachusetts is “smart” or not, but whether growth is possible at all. We are facing an economic crisis. Rather than implementing policies that only build on our reputation as being unfriendly to business, we must actively work to attract businesses and eliminate the barriers that block economic growth.
No one wants sprawl, but there are more effective ways to accomplish this than by chasing businesses and talented workers out of Massachusetts. Economic growth, including the efficient production of housing at suitable locations in each municipality, benefits all of us. Unlike what is proposed in the Land Use Reform Act, zoning and subdivision regulations should establish clear, fair, efficient, and consistent rules by which such production can take place.
Action is needed now. We can no longer allow the widespread abuse of antiquated local zoning requirements and development review processes to prevent the development of needed housing, mixed-use, and commercial projects. The economic health and vitality of the Commonwealth are at stake.
David Begelfer is CEO of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Industrial and Office Properties (NAIOP). Brian Blaesser is a partner at Robinson & Cole LLP and serves as co-chair of the NAIOP Growth Committee.
LURA won’t promote smart growth or build the housing we desperately need
No one disputes the fact that the Commonwealth has a housing crisis. We are not building enough housing, and what housing we are building is on lots that are unnecessarily large. Housing is too expensive, and we are wasting land. According to US Census Bureau permit data, Massachusetts saw yet another decline in the construction of single-family homes in 2004. While the rest of the country is dramatically increasing single-family home production (28 percent higher in 2004 than five years earlier), Massachusetts produced 4 percent fewer single-family homes in 2004 than in 1999. Massachusetts currently ranks 45th in the nation in homeownership and has the second highest median home prices nationally.
How did we get so far behind in housing production at a time when approximately 40 acres a day were lost to development (according to the Massachusetts Audubon Society) between 1985 and 1999? It is not because cities and towns lack the tools to encourage thoughtful housing production consistent with broader goals regarding the environment, community building, and effective use of existing transportation infrastructure. What is lacking is the political will.
There is nothing in the current zoning enabling act that prevents us from accomplishing real reform. Homebuilders have long supported local efforts to develop comprehensive master plans that balance environmental protection, open space preservation, municipal infrastructure, community character, and housing supply. (And, yes, by all means tie local zoning to local master plans, as LURA suggests.)
We have also supported techniques and strategies that reduce sprawl while allowing for the construction of desperately needed housing affordable to a broad spectrum of incomes. To achieve the not-mutually-exclusive goals of housing production and land preservation, the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts sponsored amendments to the zoning act that allowed communities to adopt zoning ordinances and bylaws permitting cluster developments as a matter of right and the use of transfer of land development rights (TDR). Endorsed by organizations ranging from the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the American Farmland Trust to the Massachusetts Federation of Planning and Appeals Boards and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, these amendments were enacted into law in 2000 and 2002. Clearly, it is not the lack of “tools” that keep real reform like cluster zoning and TDR from being used, but a lack of interest. To the best of our knowledge, only a single community has used either tool since the bills’ passage.
Transit-oriented development is another area where the good intentions of forward-thinking developers and master planners run up against self-interested residents, fearful of change, who block innovative projects. The Villages at Kingston and Wakefield Crossing are two examples of developments that would maximize the benefits of existing transportation nodes, minimize street construction and vehicular traffic, preserve open space, promote neighborhoods, utilize existing infrastructure, and facilitate the production of both single-family and multifamily housing. Both are “smarter” developments that show us what can be achieved using the authority already available to communities under the existing zoning law. Yet the Kingston project, widely praised as smart growth, was twice rejected by town meeting, the second time by a bloc of members just big enough to deny the plan the two-thirds majority required to approve a zoning change. Why? Fear of change, fear of difference, fear of any development whatsoever.
That is the conundrum facing municipal planners, state officials, environmentalists, and builders. We are wasting land in Massachusetts. Yet voters continue to reject any effort to increase density, even though it is the only means by which a community can achieve the goals of smart growth. It is far easier to block innovation than it is to accomplish it. Tellingly, there is nothing in the Land Use Reform Act that requires towns to amend their zoning bylaws to provide for greater density.
In fact, LURA does nothing to stop cities and towns from adopting the kinds of zoning ordinances and bylaws and subdivision regulations that further the waste of land, and have directly contributed to the housing crisis currently threatening the well-being of the Commonwealth. By focusing on eliminating both zoning freeze protection for subdivisions and subdivision approval-not-required (ANR) lots, the Land Use Reform Act only adds to the regulatory quagmire we face. The provision that allows cities and towns to impose development impact fees for a broad variety of purposes will drive already high housing prices even higher. And the broad grant of authority given to municipalities to adopt rate-of-development zoning bylaws will dramatically choke off housing. None of this is “reform.”
The issue is a much larger one. By allowing individual towns to create their own patchwork of zoning, environmental, and other regulations, the Commonwealth has effectively offered license for each community to foist their housing responsibility on neighboring towns. The Home Builders Association of Massachusetts believes that what is needed to promote smart growth, and make housing more available, is not reform of the zoning act, but reform of local zoning. Cities and towns must amend their local zoning ordinances and bylaws to provide for smaller lots, cluster zoning by right, inclusionary zoning with density bonuses, multifamily housing by right, the use of transfer of development rights with density bonuses, and the elimination of building permit moratoriums.There are 5 million acres of land in Massachusetts; 1 million are developed, and 1 million are permanently protected. It is time to start thinking realistically—and collectively, across town borders—about what we want to do with the remaining 3 million acres. To be sure, a significant portion should be protected as recreational or wildlife habitat, but there is room and reason for an equally significant portion to be developed for housing and jobs. Let’s plan for what we want, not what we don’t want. That would be a real act of land use reform.
Finley H. Perry Jr. is president of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts.