New research into one of the globe’s most ambitious upzoning experiments contains potentially bad news for Massachusetts – just not quite what you’d think. 

A working paper by University of Auckland economics professor Ryan Greenway-McGrevy suggests that a blanket 2016 upzoning by city authorities there succeeded in dodging a roughly 22 percent to 35 percent increase in rents for family-sized units. 

This is fundamentally good news for everyone working to remove the heavy shackles of exclusionary zoning from the state’s for-profit and nonprofit affordable development industries. By effectively relaxing floor-area ratios in roughly three-quarters of New Zealand’s largest city, officials unleashed a medium-density construction boom that helped curb growth in what are some of the developed world’s highest housing costs, with effects starting to show up as early as 2018. 

Furthermore, by comparing observed rents in Auckland to a model based on similar New Zealand housing markets that didn’t see zoning reforms, Greenaway-McGrevy estimated that rents for three-bedroom apartments are now between 22 percent and 35 percent lower than they might have been, while two-bedroom units are between 14 percent and 22 percent lower. 

But the paper contains elements of bad news, too. To get this effect, Auckland politicians had to get comfortable with a massive change in zoning laws that went far beyond our MBTA Communities legislation.  

Huge swathes of single-family neighborhoods suddenly gained permission to have up to three units per lot in buildings up to 2 stories tall, with minimum lot sizes just over 4,300 square feet – around the size of many lots in Boston neighborhoods like Roslindale, but half the size of many lots in more suburban neighborhoods like West Roxbury. 

Areas closest to business districts and transit lines got somewhat more aggressive treatment, with 5-story height limits, no minimum setbacks and no maximum number of dwelling units on site. In all areas, the minimum size of a one-bedroom apartment was set at just under 500 square feet. 

Returning our gaze to Massachusetts, statements by newly minted Housing Secretary Ed Augustus at his inauguration show there is no appetite on Beacon Hill for anything this thorough-going.  

He spoke of “working with” towns and cities covered by the MBTA Communities legislation to enact zoning changes – many of which are the same suburbs that have historically fought new and denser housing tooth-and-nail. That’s not the kind of language you use if you think you have support in the state legislature to aggressively ride herd over towns that might well use rezoning processes to erect whole new barriers to densification while going through the motions of an upzoning.

And the House’s and Senate’s decidedly lackadaisical attitudes towards our housing emergency – the Joint Committee on Housing hasn’t even scheduled a hearing on any of the 156 bills before it, and powerful House Speaker Ron Mariano didn’t so much as lift a finger to expedite the launch of Augustus’ new department – shows Gov. Maura Healey’s team may not be crazy, at all. 

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Good News, Bad News in Landmark Housing Research

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min