Metropolis

Can You Force the Suburbs to Build Apartments? Massachusetts Is Trying.

Even if some towns “have to go kicking and screaming.”

An idyllic-looking tree-lined suburban street, covered in orange leaves.
More apartments. Getty Images Plus

Build up or pay up.

That is the message Massachusetts is sending to 175 cities and suburbs in the Boston area, as a bill passed last year to boost housing production begins to take effect. Almost every jurisdiction in eastern Massachusetts, from the New Hampshire border to Worcester to the Cape Cod Canal, will have to do its part zoning for 344,000 new units of as-of-right multifamily housing—or lose access to some state grant programs. That means allowing apartments in many tony subdivisions currently reserved for single-family homes.

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For perspective, all of Massachusetts currently builds just 15,000 new units a year—a huge drop-off from the 20th century and one reason that the Boston area has some of the highest rents and home prices in the country. “Massachusetts is the first state to actually get a policy like this,” said Jessie Grogan at the Cambridge-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “Are the incentives strong enough? Probably not. But it will have some impact, and more than the other housing tools we’ve tried.”

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In some ways, Massachusetts is thriving. Employment is high; incomes are among the highest in the nation. In spite of that, the population declined between 2020 and 2021—a trend that reflects the state’s crushing housing shortage. As in California and Oregon, policymakers in Massachusetts have realized that splintered metropolitan governments are structurally incapable of effectively addressing the issue. Few towns want to change, and nobody wants to go first.

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So far, West Coast states have had more success breaking down apartment bans than East Coast peers like Maryland and Connecticut. But the East is catching up. Pro-housing reforms suddenly seem viable in Albany. Some are modeled after Massachusetts, where unlike most Republicans Gov. Charlie Baker has not let contempt for the poor outweigh pro-growth instinct.

Baker thinks the Bay State’s crimped housing production is at the root of its affordability crisis. “It’s an equity problem, it’s an economic development problem, it’s a community development problem,” he told reporters last spring. “It makes huge differences with respect to where people can actually afford to live here in the commonwealth, whether or not they can stay, and where they make decisions about where to start a family.” Liberal housing experts agree, and add that it’s an environmental problem: Building restrictions in central areas force families to relocate into car-dependent sprawl.

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Baker’s 2021 economic development bill included zoning and permitting reform. But the biggest gambit was the multifamily housing mandate for the Boston suburbs. As Michael Kennealy, Massachusetts’ secretary of housing and economic development, said in a webinar this month: “Our housing strategy could be simply summarized as more types of housing everywhere.”

The mandate applies to places served by or adjacent to stations of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state agency that operates the buses and trains that fan out of Boston. The so-called MBTA communities include fishing towns, postindustrial cities, and rural outposts. But the highest burden falls on Boston’s bedroom suburbs, such as Quincy and Newton, whose excellent transit infrastructure is compromised by complicated and exclusionary zoning rules.

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Take Newton, where the median home sells for $1.4 million. It’s a large suburb of 88,000 souls 7 miles from Boston Common. It has 10 stations of light rail and commuter rail.* But the residential density around those stops, according to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Transit-Oriented Development Explorer, never exceeds five units an acre. The median across all MBTA stations is 6.2 homes per acre; the state now requires MBTA communities include at least one district with 15 homes per acre. (That corresponds to a relatively dense but recognizably suburban fabric, such as town houses or duplexes around shared yards.)

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Under compliance with the new law, Newton would realistically need more than one district, since the state is requiring it create by-right zoning capacity for 8,330 apartments. How much by-right multifamily zoning exists in Newton today? None.

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At a zoning meeting in Newton last week, city councilors sounded alternately excited and defiant about loosening up land use regulations. The deep-blue suburb briefly flirted with ending single-family zoning after the racial justice protests of 2020, before retreating in panic during municipal elections last year. Newton has permitted a handful of apartment projects in recent years, but all have gone through lengthy review with the City Council. One 800-unit development, Northland, took three years, hundreds of meetings, and an 18-month public hearing process to be approved. Councilors secured additional units of affordable housing—but also shrank the project by almost 50 percent.

That type of back-and-forth negotiation, beloved by city councils the world over, is what Massachusetts is trying to avoid by making zoning “as of right”—no horse-trading and no unforeseen delays. “It’s a huge problem in metro Boston,” said Grogan. “Local communities have evolved to require a special permitting process, which allows a lot of flexibility to get concessions and amenities. On the other hand, it makes development a lot more expensive and less predictable because you never know what you’ll be asked to do going into the process.”

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Tim Reardon, of Boston’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council, noted that even straightforward zoning can be burdensome. The Boston suburb of Essex, for example, requires a four-bedroom apartment include six parking spots! “As a developer told us in a forum last week,” he said, “there’s also a concern that as-of-right zoning could have so many restrictions that it ends up being infeasible.” Even well-meaning rules, such as affordability requirements or environmental standards, can put a chokehold on new supply.

More worrisome, perhaps, is the possibility that suburbs can fulfill the mandate by redrawing zoning maps to include existing apartment buildings constructed during a more freewheeling era. According to the planning council, this double-counting could reduce the law’s impact by 75,000 units, nearly 25 percent of the total, especially in places that are already relatively dense and well served by transit—such as the college towns of Cambridge and Somerville. Perversely, this means that those places could sneak through allowing little new housing—while some faraway small towns zone for rapid growth.

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Finally, there’s the concern that prosperous suburbs will simply not follow the law—a possibility that a couple of Newton councilors suggested might be easier than abandoning their right to shape future projects. “It remains uncertain what the courts will do if they don’t comply,” said Clark Ziegler of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, which is working with jurisdictions on adapting to the new rules. “It is a mandate. It’s not an opt-in.” But if penalties don’t go beyond loss of grants, the mandate may not legalize apartments in very many suburbs. That, in turn, would funnel pent-up demand into those jurisdictions that do permit new apartments, increasing the burden of compliance. (This is one reason the state wants all these suburbs to upzone at once.)

Still, said Ziegler, whose organization has been angling for a multifamily mandate for a decade, it’s a good start. “You have to take the long view here. It will take a while to play out, and that’s appropriate. Some communities are poised. Some are going to have to go kicking and screaming.”

Correction, Jan. 21, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Newton has eight stations of light rail and commuter rail. It has 10.

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