Jenny Schuetz

We have a growing regional economy that needs more housing options at a wider range of price points. But Massachusetts has delegated most housing policy decisions to local governments that aren’t elected to consider our region’s needs.  

For too long, the state has allowed municipalities to ban development other than single-family detached houses through zoning. Further, local planning meetings tend to be dominated by homeowners who are older, whiter and richer than the population at large, encouraging status quo opposition to new housing proposals.  

What few projects do win approval can take years of process before they begin, adding unnecessary costs. As a result, the region’s housing shortage gets worse every year.  

Massachusetts voters increasingly recognize the need for more diverse, and less expensive, housing. But our policy debates are too localized and lack a vision for what alternative state-level approaches might look like.  

With this in mind, our new report, Zoned Out: Why Massachusetts Needs to Legalize Apartments Near Transit, proposes one concrete path for state action in creating better regional land use regulations.  

Other parts of the country have recognized the need for statewide engagement in land use. Last year the state of Oregon legalized the construction of duplexes statewide for all cities of more than 10,000 residents, and legalized triplexes and more in larger cities. As part of a new comprehensive plan, the city of Minneapolis in 2018 became the first major U.S. city to eliminate single-family-exclusive zoning citywide with higher multifamily allowances around transit stations. 

Luc Schuster

We propose a state policy legalizing low- to mid-rise multifamily housing (e.g., townhomes, duplexes, small apartment buildings), up to a maximum density of 20 units per acre, within one-half mile of all transit stations statewide. Such a policy would level the playing field across localities, enabling property owners and developers to build the same structures under a common set of rules statewide. It would help realize the tremendous potential for more climate-friendly development in close proximity to our region’s underutilized commuter rail stations.  

To be clear, this would not end local control. Rather, it would achieve a better balance between local and regional needs. Cities and towns would retain significant local leeway to set zoning standards elsewhere in their communities and to consider higher minimum density levels, if they chose to. 

Modeling the Impact 

Tvisualize outcomes of this policy, we modeled the type of development that might occur within five years of the policy’s adoption, providing case studies for four suburban station areas: Wellesley Hills, Needham Heights, Beverly Farms and Melrose Cedar Park. The results indicate that taking a more uniform statewide approach to transit-oriented development could yield substantially more housing at a wider range of prices than currently available. 

New condominiums built in Wellesley Hills and Needham Heights would be affordable to households earning under $100,000 per year, well below the median income of current residents ($153,000 in Needham and $188,000 in Wellesley). Further, we estimate that the cost of building a new townhouse in Wellesley Hills would be $826,000 and the cost of a new condo would be less than $500,000, far below the median value of existing homes in Wellesley today – over $1 million. 

In Beverly, Melrose and Wellesley, the number of new condos that could be built within a halfmile of a single rail station over the next five years is similar or greater to the total number of new housing units built in the entire jurisdiction in the past five years. Wellesley permitted only 316 housing units in the entire town between 2015 and 2019, nearly all single-family homes. Under this proposal, nearly 300 multifamily condos could be built within a halfmile radius around the Wellesley Hills station, substantially expanding and diversifying the town’s housing stock. 

This policy would relieve displacement pressures on communities in Boston’s urban core and would create new rental housing available to lower-income families. In Wellesley and Needham, the monthly cost of new condos falls below the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Small Area Fair Market Rents, meaning that households who receive federal housing vouchers could potentially rent condos in those communities. 

Takes Pressure Off Cities 

Allowing smaller, higher-density housing offers the greatest affordability improvements in the most expensive communities.  

In less expensive communities like Beverly and Melrose, newly built condos would not offer substantial savings relative to older existing homesalthough they would still be financially viable and help contribute to our region’s housing supply needs 

The advantage of a consistent statewide policy is that it enables new housing to be built in the places with highest demand, while lifting some market pressures from moderate-income communities that currently are providing most of the region’s new housing. 

In recent years, we’ve seen promising growth in the number of local campaigns to build more multifamily housing, with successful zoning reforms passing in places like Newton and Cambridge.  

But organizing one-off campaigns across 351 separate cities and towns is slow and uncertainTo meet the region’s shared housing needs, we need shared solutions debated and designed through state government. A statewide policy to legalize apartments near transit is one promising first step. 

Jenny Schuetz is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Luc Schuster is director of Boston Indicators, the research center at The Boston Foundation. 

State Must Lead Towns Towards Solving Shared Housing Problems

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min