MBTA Communities Multifamily Zoning Law
“Compliance with the MBTA Communities Zoning Law is not only mandatory, it is an essential tool for the Commonwealth to address its housing crisis along with our climate and transportation goals.” – Attorney General Andrea Campbell
Why this law now?
“In a single generation, while our economy has grown, our population has grown, and our workforce has grown, our level of housing production has been cut in half.” – Michael Kennealy, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development
No wonder prices have gone up!
Massachusetts faces a core challenge to create adequate housing to support young families, workers, and an aging population.
Massachusetts has among the highest, and fastest growing, home prices and rents of any state in the U.S.
To address climate change, the MBTA Communities law specifically requires that towns update their zoning code to allow more people to live near transit to reduce carbon emissions from driving.
What is the value of good public transportation if people are not allowed to live near it! Newton has repeatedly blocked new housing or reduced the number of housing units in buildings near transit.
Newton needs to show good faith by allowing more people to live near transit to encourage further investment by the state and federal government in the transit in our community.
What the law says
Section 3A of MGL c. 40A: “An MBTA community shall have a zoning ordinance or by-law that provides for at least 1 district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right; provided, however, that such multi-family housing shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children. For the purposes of this section, a district of reasonable size shall: (i) have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre…”
The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) issued final guidelines outlining the specifics of what cities and towns must do to meet the requirements of the law. The guidelines were updated in August 2023.
What does Newton need to do to meet the Requirements of the MBTA Communities Zoning Law ?
DHCD has developed a complex compliance model that calculates how many units would be allowed in the MBTA district given the rules laid out in the zoning ordinance.
This model in no way estimates the actual number of new homes that would be built under the proposed zoning.
Even though Newton’s current multi-residential zoning, allows 2 townhouses or a two family home on close to 5,600 lots, 35% (about 2,000) of those lots have single family homes. On some of these lots, multi-family homes have been allowed since the 1920s when zoning was first developed in Newton.
- Newton is required to develop rules for zoning that would allow for 8,330 units.
- Some key points about the theoretical number of units:
- The law does not require Newton to build housing. It only requires that the zoning code is written to allow that number of housing units.
- The theoretical number does not take in to account what is already on the lot.
- The model looks at all the lots as if they were a blank slate and calculates the total number of units allowed.
- The unit capacity does not equal the additional number of units that would be allowed. For example, even if a lot already has 5 units but under the new rules it could have 20, all 20 are counted even though only 15 of those would be an addition to what already exists.
- Many factors influence what would be built. For example, many people in Newton have lived in their homes for 20-30 years or more. Any change in the number of units would most likely happen when someone sells their home.
- Newton is currently not built out to the full capacity of the zoning code – even after the 70+ years since the last major revision of the code.
- In Newton’s multi-residence districts where there could be at least 2 units on every lot about 35% are still single family homes.
- The state has said the number is only a metric to evaluate the the zoning codes. It is not a build out analysis.
- The current zoning proposal covers less than 3.5% of the land in Newton.
- The average zoning capacity needs to be 15 units/acre – some areas can be less and some more.
- Lower average density would mean more land would need to be included. At an average of 15 units/acre, Newton would need to include 555 acres of land.
- Higher average density would mean less land would need to be included. The current proposal has an average of 35 units/acre and includes 288 acres or about half as much as a lower density proposal.
- To get a sense of what different units/acre looks like:
- 90% of the district needs to be located within ½ mile of a commuter rail or T stop. The current proposal has 100% of the district within ½ mile.
- 50% of the land in the district needs to be in one contiguous area.
- The minimum area of each section of the district is 5 acres.
- Multifamily homes need to be allowed without a lengthy and risky special permit process. Site plan review is allowed, however. (Multifamily is defined as 3 or more units which is the definition in the Massachusetts Building Code.)
- Mixed-use buildings are allowed as long as 100% residential is also allowed as an option.
- Newton’s inclusionary ordinance will be allowed based on the city showing that building new housing in the city would still be financially feasible.
- The new zoning district needs to be approved by the City Council by December 31, 2023.
Proposal for MBTA Zoning as of April 2023
The MBTA zoning district proposal is based the Village Center zoning that Newton has been working on over the past couple years
- There would be 4 districts – Multi Residential Transit (MRT); Village Centers 1, 2, and 3 (VC1, VC2 and VC3).
- Special permits and site plan review
- Buildings on lots over 30,000 sf would need a special permit.
- Buildings on lots between 20,000 sf and 29,999 sf require a site plan review.
- No minimum parking requirements.
- The number of parking spaces would be based on criteria such as distance from the T, the number and size of units, and market demand.
- Proposed Affordability Bonus
- Current inclusionary zoning: 17.5% of units deed restricted affordable.
- Option 1 – In VC2 and VC3: 25% affordable units; 1 additional floor; increase footprint by 2,500 sf; not allowed within 50’ of an MRT or R district.
- Option 2 – In VC3 only: 30% affordable units; 2 additional floors; increase footprint by 2,500 sf; not allowed within 50’ of a VC1, MRT or R district.
Where in Newton will the MBTA district be located?
- Newton has proposed an overlay zoning district that includes areas near transit in Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, Waban, Newtonville and West Newton.
- An overlay district does not change the current zoning. It only changes what can be done on the lot in the future – the number of housing units, the size of a building…
- Most of the capacity for new housing is in or next to village centers with transit and an area along Rt. 9. Because the residential areas included only allow 3-4 unit buildings for new construction and a few more if renovating an existing home many fewer units could be built in those areas.
- The required large contiguous district runs along the Green Line including Newton Centre, Newton Highlands, and area along Rt. 9 within walking distance of the Eliot and Newton Highland T stops.
- Areas Not Included:
- Priority Streets –Because stores and restaurants are critical to our village centers, some areas of villages would require retail or commercial use on the first floor. Because that requirement is not allowed in the MBTA Communities zoning, those streets can not in the overlay district.
- City owned land such as schools and parks.
- Lots within historic districts.
- Auburndale does not have the minimum requirement of 5 contiguous acres when the priority streets and public land are taken out.
- Near the Boston College T stop there is a lot of land owned by BC and the city which could not be included.
- Chestnut Hill is mostly surrounded by the historic district; a private school which can’t be included; and the Street which is already zoned for more development.
- Woodland has existing multifamily near the T-stop with both the Woodland Station Apartments and the Golda Meir House.
- The area next to Riverside has a special permit for 550 units that also includes commercial spaces, public open space and additional community benefits based on negotiations during the special permitting process. Projects of this size would always require a special permit.
What should Newton prioritize when developing the new MBTA zoning district?
To address climate change it is important that the district be close to village centers in walkable areas near both transit and other amenities
To address affordability, the ordinance should allow smaller units. This could be accomplished by removing the minimum lot size per unit requirement that is in Newton’s current code. The current rule limits the number of units on a site which is basically a requirement to build larger units.
Affordability can also be addressed by allowing buildings with 7 or more units. This is the size that triggers Newton’s Inclusionary Housing Ordinance and requires that there are deed restricted affordable units in the building.
The city can look at where there is the possibility of building new multifamily development by incorporating areas such as underutilized parking lots.
Both the climate and affordability can be addressed with lower parking requirements.
- Parking spaces are expensive to build.
- Requirements limit the amount of housing on a lot by requiring space to be used for parking (housing cars) instead of housing people. Fewer units mean more expensive units.
- Paved parking areas increase runoff and increase the heat island effect.
- When there are fewer parking spots available, households drive less and own fewer cars.
What are the benefits of the MBTA Communities Law for Newton
- Helps make Newton’s plans and strategies a reality—for housing, climate action, transit, and economic development.
- By defining an MBTA Community multifamily district, Newton can:
- Increase housing affordability
- Take action on climate change
- Provide access to opportunity
- Improve the vitality of the villages
- Increase use of Newton’s public transit resources
- Defining an MBTA Communities district will allow Newton continued access to critical state funds such as MassWorks, the Housing Choice Initiative, and Local Capital Projects.
- Allowing more housing near transit will improve the state’s focus on our transit infrastructure.
Why does the law require development by right?
By-right development is a more predictable process. As long as the zoning rules and building codes are followed, builders would not need to go through a lengthy and expensive special permit process.
Prior to this law, special permits were needed for any multi-family housing in the city. In Newton, special permits require 2/3rds of the city council to vote in favor of the project. In Newton with 24 councilors, that meant 16 votes. Thus, a minority of the city council (8 councilors) could block new housing and development.
Not having a lengthy special permit process streamlines the building of new homes and lowers the overall costs and risks of building. This should give smaller and non-profit developers more opportunities to build in Newton.
Research into participation in local city government in Massachusetts found that the majority of those who attend and speak up at public hearings are homeowners who are wealthier and whiter than the communities in which they live. They have used the special permit process to attempt to stop new development.
What control will Newton have over development?
Newton will develop all of the details of the zoning ordinance including building heights, setbacks, and building footprint sizes – all of which control the size of a building. The city will also determine the size of a project that triggers a special permit. And it will decide on the specific locations of the multi-family district within the city
Site-design review is allowed. This can include architectural design; access and circulation on a site; and the screening of adjacent properties. However, the review may not be so onerous as to prohibit a project.
MBTA Communities Law Timeline and Next Steps
- Version 2.0 Village Center Zoning and MBTA District Zoning – April 2023
- Presentation to the full City Council – June 20, 2023
- Public hearing begins June 26, 2023 and it will remain open for additional time for public hearings during the fall
- Further discussion and modifications in the Zoning and Planning Committee during the summer and early fall
- Vote in the Zoning and Planning Committee – Fall 2023
- Discussion and vote by the full City Council – Fall 2023
- Newton is required to adopt new zoning by 12/31/2023
One City Councilor noted, “We’ve been talking about zoning reform for a long time. This will give us a kick in the tuches to get it done.