Manikka Bowman

Greater Boston is already in the throes of a housing shortage and it is estimated we will need to add more than 200,000 apartments and condos to meet the region’s growing demand. But, while local, regional and state leaders are taking steps to increase the supply of multi-family housing units, significant barriers stand in the way of achieving the goals many have outlined.  

According to a June 2019 report commissioned by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, “while only a few municipalities effectively prohibit multi-family housing from being built altogether, all municipalities highly restrict its development relative to demand.” 

In her June 2019 report, The State of Zoning for New Multifamily Housing in Greater Boston, researcher Amy Dain reviewed regulations, plans and permits in 100 cities and towns surrounding Boston. Her report contained four key findings 

  1. Very little land in the area is zoned for multifamily housing 
  2. The region has moved to a system of project-by-project decision-making 
  3. The most widespread trend in zoning for multi-family housing has been to make it part of a larger, mixed-use development  
  4. Municipalities are allowing incremental development in historic centers and on the municipal peripheries of their communitiesWhen higher level density is allowed, it’s isolated from public transit, which creates poorly connected edge cities in suburban communities. 

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from her research is that municipalities tend to grant zoning relief on a projectbyproject basisZoning is not necessarily focused on multifamily units, which is why the process of bringing units to market is so slow. Goulston & Storrs Director Matthew Kiefer underscored the point at a recent ULI Housing and Economic Development Council program when he posed the question: “What would it take for Greater Boston to recognize the region is approaching a housing crisis?”  

Few Cities Produce Housing 

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council recently examined permits for multifamily housing issued by 14 cities and towns in the urban core of Metro Boston. Its data showed Boston has issued permits for nearly 19,000 new housing units since 2015, while the other 13 communities combined issued 10,000 permits. Of those, the majority were zoned and permitted in three communities: Cambridge, Somerville and Quincy. The interior core communities are leading in production, but they can’t solve the region’s housing crisis alone 

The statistics point to the need for a regional approach to multi-family development zoning to eliminate what Kiefer described as “abutters [making] zoning decisions that benefit their immediate needs at the exclusion of the region.” 

Speaking at the ULI programCambridge Vice Mayor and City Councilwoman Jan Devereux noted the general public’s lack of understanding about the impact of municipal zoning decisions.  

The average community member is not deeply immersed in the nuance of zoning in their community and how it impacts the region,” she said. 

The panelists suggested the state can play a role in creating a structure that encourages a regional zoning approach by creating incentives for elected officials to come together, think about broader interests and address the issue of housing density collaboratively.   

Boston is a worldclass city with strong economic fundamentals that is now enjoying robust growth. It was ranked one of the top 10 markets for investment in the latest ULI/PwC survey. But there is a housing crisis here, and we need to look at many different tools to fix the problem. Maybe it’s finally time to stop building one zoning decision at a time.  

Manikka Bowman is director of policy and outreach for ULI Boston/New England. 

Regional Solutions to Solve Housing Crisis Should Be Considered

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min