MBTA Communities Multifamily Zoning Law
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 in creating 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.
The lack of new supply drives up home prices and threatens our economy. Rising costs have dramatically increased financial pressure on families forcing them to sacrifice other priorities in order to pay for housing costs.
High housing costs are a primary driver of homelessness.
To address climate change, the MBTA Communities law will not only help build more housing but it specifically targets building new homes near transit to reduce 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.
How will this new state law help Newton?
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
How much housing does Newton need to allow for?
The number of housing units required of each city and town is based on the type of transit – rapid transit or commuter rail – and the number of existing housing units in a town.
Since Newton is a rapid transit community, the city is required to create a zoning district that could allow 8,330 units which is 25% of our current number of housing units. Two key points:
- The law does not require that the housing be built. It only requires that the zoning code allows for that number of housing units.
- The unit count does not look at what is already built on a lot. It only looks at what the zoning code would allow by-right on that lot.
To meet the requirements, Newton will most likely create an overlay zoning district so that the district could include multiple areas spread out across the city. The individual areas within the overlay could be as small as 5 acres. Because Newton has many transit stops and therefore a lot of land close to those stops, 90% of the district needs to be located within ½ mile of a transit stop.
Different zoning is allowed within the district. For example, some areas may only allow 3 family homes while others may allow buildings with 3-4 stories and up to 25 – 35 units.
The amount of land in Newton that needs to be included in the MBTA multifamily zone depends on how many housing units are allowed per acre. The state law requires a minimum of 15 units/acre. However, multifamily buildings may have 30 or more units/acre. If a higher number of units/acre is allowed, less land would need to be in the new district. Either way, the amount of land that this new zoning district would impact is very small – less than 5% of the land in Newton.
To get a sense of what these numbers mean:
Newton’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance that requires 20% affordable units in a building still applies to this district because this ordinance was in place prior to the passage of the MBTA multifamily zoning act.
Housing in mixed-use buildings is allowed as long as 100% residential is also allowed as an option in the district.
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.
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.
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.
- Renewed state focus on our transit infrastructure.
- Access to critical state funds such as MassWorks, the Housing Choice Initiative, and Local Capital Projects.
MBTA Communities Law Timeline and Next Steps
- Community feedback on the zoning framework for village centers – Fall 2022
- Draft zoning code for village centers ready for discussion in ZAP (MBTA requirements will be considered for the village centers) – Late Fall 2022
- Revise zoning for “corridors”, Needham St., Rt. 9, and Washington St. Include zoning to meet the MBTA requirements. – 2023
- Action plan that outlines the process and strategy for adopting and MBTA multi-family district – 01/31/23
- Public hearings – During 2023
- Final zoning code – Fall 2023
- Zoning plan needs to be adopted by the City Council – 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.