Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance Looks to Create Great Neighborhoods through Zoning Reform

Smart Growth

The housing crisis in Massachusetts is real. Over the past several years, only a handful of communities across the Commonwealth have produced substantial numbers of new apartments – with 10 municipalities creating nearly two-thirds of all the new multifamily housing in the state. Boston alone has been responsible for a whopping 37 percent of the state’s apartment construction.  Currently, the Commonwealth is producing less than half of the housing built at peak levels in the 1970s.

Our housing shortage threatens the Commonwealth’s remarkable economic growth and makes it more difficult for employers to retain the young people who want to stay here.  The lack of housing production also exacerbates the region’s income inequality and threatens our opportunities to preserve and protect the region’s open space.

The good news is that there is growing momentum at the municipal and state level to address this challenge.  O’Neill and Associates’ client, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA), leads a statewide coalition of local officials, housing and environmental advocates, planners, grassroots leaders, business groups and even public health organizations as part of its “Great Neighborhoods” campaign to reform our state’s development rules, which have not been updated since 1975.

The Great Neighborhoods campaign can point to impressive recent wins. The State Senate passed a comprehensive zoning and housing bill in June of 2016, and House leadership is currently working on its version. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, together with 14 other mayors and town managers, launched a regional housing partnership in December. A week later, Governor Charlie Baker and his administration unveiled a series of “Housing Choice” incentives along with a pledge to build 135,000 new units of housing by 2025.

The next few months are critical. As the Boston Globe recently editorialized, it is time for leaders to “aim higher” to address the housing crisis. A comprehensive and balanced legislative package should accomplish the following, following the lead of Great Neighborhoods bills H2420 and S81:

  • Offer more housing choices to families and seniors by making it easier to build multifamily housing and accessory dwellings (aka “in-law” apartments), as well as prohibit discrimination through local zoning policy or permitting decisions;
  • Promote healthy communities and protect open space by establishing zoning tools that cluster development, curb roadside sprawl, and encourage walkable places;
  • Provide cities and towns the tools they need by training local planning and zoning boards, standardizing permitting techniques like site plan review, and streamlining the master plan process; and
  • Establish more predictable, cost-effective development rules by lowering the vote threshold for zoning and special permit approval to a simple majority, encouraging alternative dispute resolution, and reducing frivolous appeals.

If you are interested in learning more about MSGA’s efforts, please watch their executive director, Andre Leroux, discussing the Great Neighborhoods campaign on Urban Update and The Take, sign up for their email list, or visit their Great Neighborhoods website. You can also weigh in with your legislators here.