In 2022, former governor of Massachusetts Charlie Baker told the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that the biggest challenge facing the commonwealth in the coming years will be the cost of housing. A year later, housing costs in Massachusetts remain among the highest in the nation.
Massachusetts ranks sixth in average home price ($559,312) and near the top in rental pricing, with an average rent of $2,485 for a one-bedroom apartment through February–up 10.4 percent year-over-year. Traffic has also returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, with the city of Boston’s traffic recently ranked as the fourth-worst in the world.
To address these issues, the commonwealth last year passed the Multi-Family Zoning Requirement for MBTA Communities (also known as Section 3A). When fully implemented, the law will affect the 175 municipalities—half of the total in the commonwealth—that are served by its mass transit system, the MBTA. Section 3A mandates that there must be at least one zoning district where multifamily housing is allowed “as of right.” The new district must be at least 50 acres (20.2 ha) or 1.5 percent of the community’s developable land, half of which must be contiguous, located within 0.5 miles (0.8 km) from a transit station, and must allow for a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre. This does not mean that every acre must have 15 units, only that the zoning allows for the potential for housing of that density to be built. MBTA communities that are noncompliant with Section 3A will be ineligible for funding from some sources provided by the commonwealth, most notably MassWorks, which provides funding for public infrastructure projects for municipalities.
To help developers and municipalities gain a better understanding of the new law, ULI Boston recently held a panel discussion, “Addressing the Housing Shortage through Public Policy: Multi-Family in MBTA Communities,” at the University of Massachusetts Club in Boston. Moderated by Judi Barrett, founding principal of the Barrett Planning Group, the panel included Paul Materazzo, director of planning for the Town of Andover;
Sandi Silk, senior vice president of development for the Jefferson Apartment Group; Jennifer Constable, assistant town administrator for the Town of Rockland; and Michela DeSantis, senior development manager for the Boylston Properties Company.
An Overview of the Law
Barrett provided an overview of the law, its compliance deadlines (which extend until the end of 2024 for most communities), and how the compliance model will work in practice, stressing that the new law will not require new housing development. “Compliance is not based on production,” explained Barrett. “Compliance is based on zoning that allows proponents to build housing at 15 units per acre, by right.” The law also does not compel communities to pay for the infrastructure needed in a 3A district.
Historically, one of the difficulties in getting adequate levels of housing built in Massachusetts is that each of the state’s 351 municipalities has its own zoning ordinances and bylaws – the majority of which seem designed to impede multifamily housing construction. And despite media reports that some communities have been resistant to 3A, Barrett believes the negativity around the issue has been overstated, as many communities are already towards compliance. “The planning conversations I’m hearing around this law, as concerned as they are, has also energized [the municipalities],” said Barrett. “I believe most communities are going to rise to the occasion and do something to make this law work…and I want to assure you that a lot of communities are already planning.”
Barrett cautioned the development community to be patient as municipalities integrate the new law into their planning, but added that they must be proactive as well. She urged developers to closely follow developments in the transit communities where they wish to develop, using tools provided by the Commonwealth and emphasized the importance of developing relationships with the municipality’s planners.
Section 3A Creates Opportunity, But Challenges Remain
The Town of Rockland had already created a district that would meet most 3A requirements, via a 40R (Smart Growth) district that allows 20 units per acre by-right, but other zoning conflicts within the district may hinder compliance. Additionally, the community is constrained by water and sewer moratoriums currently in place. Despite the hurdles, Constable is confident that the community can meet its housing goals. “All in all, we’re a welcoming community to development, once we can overcome some of the challenges.” She also re-iterated Barrett’s point on the importance of developing relationships with the municipalities early on, borrowing her catchphrase, ‘Great planning means great communities.’ “Start the conversation early,” Constable advised. “Go into these communities and educate, engage, and repeat. Talk with them, see where they’re at, and see what their action plans state…that will serve you tremendously well.”
The Town of Andover has also been preparing since 2015 to increase its transit-oriented housing as part of a downtown redevelopment plan. The town established a 100-acre (40.5 ha) overlay district that includes a three-acre parcel (the former town yard) adjacent to the train station in the Historic Mill District, which allows for up to 40 units of housing per acre. But since the town already meets and exceeds the goals of the new law, ongoing conversations are occurring within the community about the value of complying versus foregoing state incentives. “This district is on the books today, and it’s not just for housing, but for a mix of uses, and we’re actively working to knit it into the expansion of the downtown,” said Materazzo.
From a developer standpoint, Silk is enthused about the law and what it can do to encourage multifamily construction, telling the gathering, “This legislation is the biggest thing to happen to housing since 40B, and (as developers) we all have a vested interest in this moving forward.” (Chapter 40B Housing is a program created by the State of Massachusetts allowing developers to override local zoning bylaws to increase the number of affordable homes in municipalities where less than 10 percent of the housing is defined as affordable, providing at least 20-25 percent of the units have long-term affordability restrictions.)
Silk also urged developers to “get smart” with regard to the new law, because “there’s a lot of misinformation out there. One of the biggest misconceptions is that it’s going to require development, and it does not. Another key piece is that it’s not 15 units per acre (2.5 ha) uniformly, it’s 15 acres on average”, which would allow municipalities to create varying densities throughout the district. Silk also emphasized that as land use and development professionals, it is incumbent upon them to use their expertise to help communities fully understand the economic and community benefits of adding housing in a supply-constrained market.
But while the creation of an as-of-right zoning district removes some of the uncertainty from the development process, DeSantis reminded the audience that it’s not a panacea. “We welcome the law, but I don’t see it taking a lot of time out of the permitting process, and we’re still going to have pre-file meetings, upfront engagement with the community, etc., so I don’t really think it changes the overall process much,” said Desantis.
Still, as overly restrictive zoning in Boston’s suburbs continues to drive up housing costs, the development community sees 3A as a huge win for multifamily development. “There are communities that are going to do their darndest to get this law to work, and there are others who will try to get the benefits without complying, but overall, we’re very optimistic,” concluded Barrett.
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