Tom Hopper

In 2021, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed Section 3A of M.G.L. Chapter 40A into law (often referred to as “3A,” or the “MBTA Communities Law”). This reform requires 177 municipalities to have at least one zoning district where multifamily housing is permitted by right. Following its enactment, the state released guidelines setting the program’s compliance requirements. For a basic overview of the law, this MHP-produced video is a good place to start.

This piece offers four insights into the law’s implementation that make the case for a forward-looking approach to capitalize on opportunities created by the law.

First, despite press coverage highlighting a few small groups, the larger reality is more than 160 communities are working proactively toward compliance, and some have already achieved it.

Thirty-five communities have passed multifamily zoning districts or already had a district in place. Of these, 25 have applied for district compliance determinations from the state and three have been approved (Lexington, Salem and Arlington). These 35 communities have followed the guidelines and planned the best locations for multifamily development, rallying community support to pass zoning ordinances.

Ellen Marya

New permitting could take place imminently in some of these districts. Thirty-two additional communities have submitted pre-adoption applications for state review. These communities have planned districts and are looking for state confirmation before voting. In total, 67 communities have engaged with the state around specific zoning districts.

This progress is impressive but does not capture the widespread planning currently occurring in many communities diligently working toward compliance deadlines. According to interagency tracking, 162 communities (92 percent) have received technical assistance from the state or partners, such as MHP or their regional planning agency.

Planners and boards in these communities have been working proactively to find locations most suitable for multifamily housing. Many are implementing community engagement strategies to receive feedback and build understanding and support for proposed changes.

Only two communities are currently out of compliance with the law: Milton and Holden. Despite good-faith efforts by planners and advocates, vocal obstinance emerging from a subset of community members and leaders has generated the appearance of controversy around a law that in many places has been far less controversial. With most communities making so much progress, the state should avoid capitulating to detractors by adjusting requirements.

Zoning Reform Not Enough

Second, zoning sets the rules for how much housing is allowed and where it can go, but zoning doesn’t build housing or make great communities by itself.

While zoning reform may be just a change to the rules, it is also a key that unlocks the door for other strategies. We already have many tools to realize the potential more permissive zoning brings. With a streamlined permitting process, our existing planning, development and financing mechanisms can be brought to bear.

So, while zoning has long been the tool missing from our toolbox in many locations, we already have many of the other tools we need to build once that door is finally unlocked (e.g., affordable housing subsidies, pedestrian and cycling investments, infrastructure funding, energy efficiency, etc.).

Third, Section 3A implementation has already begun recalibrating how we approach issues of housing and zoning at the state, regional and local level.

There is tremendous potential for increased resource coordination across state agencies and deployment in 3A districts. We have not seen this level of state leadership, resource deployment and housing policy coordination in quite a long time.

This outcome, perhaps not an explicit goal of Section 3A, gives the commonwealth a better chance of benefiting from new zoning opportunities. Furthermore, the local coalitions, relationships and financial support mechanisms created during the zoning implementation process will serve the community development needs ahead.

‘Wait-and-See’ Won’t Be Enough

Lastly, it is tempting to look at Section 3A as an endpoint, but a “wait and see” approach for newly adopted zoning will never get us the denser, vibrant, mobility-rich communities we need.

We must step into our sense of agency and focus on neighborhood development within these targeted districts. That will take time and resources, but the investments will be worth it. Zoning is not the end goal, but a steppingstone toward a more functional region with neighborhoods and housing opportunities that increase the quality of life for all residents.

MHP has begun an analysis of development potential in the three state-approved districts to help uncover these opportunities, identify potential roadblocks and bring attention to complementary strategies to address any limitations. Initial analysis shows that while the potential for new housing is promising, targeted strategies will be critical to move from zoning to production.

The work is ahead, not behind. Let’s invest in the success we are already seeing in communities that have adopted multifamily zoning. Communities that fight change may eventually feel compelled to come along or else surrender the benefits that change can bring. But more importantly, communities that comply and the people who live there will begin to see the benefits sooner.

Tom Hopper is director and Ellen Marya is research manager at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data. This piece was adapted from a longer brief available on MHP’s website.

Looking Forward Will Maximize MBTA Communities Law’s Impact

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 3 min