Whatever the solution is to preventing corruption at Boston’s Zoning Board of Appeals, City Councilor Lydia Edwards’ proposal is not it. 

The district councilor for Charlestown, East Boston and the North End suggested last week that Boston should ban all members of the construction and real estate industries from the board, and would let the city in the future bar members from taking part in the industry for up to five years after leaving the board. 

History shows largely self-regulated industries invariably wind up hurting the common good in pursuit of profit, and a revolving door between regulators and industry is a sure-fire way to foster corruption.  

However, the board’s decisions are so complex and technical that throwing amateurs and neighborhood activists into the deep end may well cause the board to grind to a halt. Urban planners and “experts in zoning” would be allowed on the board under Edwards’ plan, but as anyone who has worked in development knows, academic knowledge of the topic is simply no substitute for the experience gained from wrestling with problems of bringing product to market in the real world. 

What harm could that cause, a reasonable person might ask? Surely exceptions to the city’s development rules must be thoroughly vetted before being granted. 

Unfortunately, in many cases the city’s zoning code and the planners who write it have proven unable to keep up with changing market realities and to balance society’s needs with voters’ natural resistance to change.  

Projects like a 35-unit apartment building recently proposed to replace a vacant nursing home on a 0.38-acre corner lot in Brighton must still go before the ZBA because the land is still only zoned for two-family homes as though the date was still 1927. This, despite the lot sitting roughly halfway between two Green Line branches in a popular area which needs more housing to prevent rents and purchase prices from rising further. 

Were the ZBA to seize up or slow down significantly, many developers would be forced to abandon many perfectly sensible projects, crippling Boston’s ability to grow its housing stock. As recent Census Bureau data shows, the city is producing just under two-thirds of all the region’s new homes.  

Absent a thorough revamp of Boston’s zoning and concessions on density and height from the kinds of older, better-off homeowners who tend to dominate neighborhood groups and public meetings, proposals like Edwards’ will always be non-starters for the housing construction industry and anyone who realizes the public sector neither has the will, the appetite nor the power to solve Greater Boston’s housing crisis. 

As Boston continues to seek a way forward to prevent corruption, more accountability, transparency and better ethics rules are clearly needed on the ZBA. And something drastic must be done to regain public trust lest voters throw the baby out with the bathwater in the next election or a subsequent one. But Edwards’ proposal won’t work as it stands now. 

Edwards’ ZBA Reform Plan Could Paralyze Housing Construction

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min