Boston Suburb Enacts Long-Awaited Inclusionary Zoning Policy
Malden, a sizable suburb 6 miles north of Boston, is embracing requiring developers to include affordable housing in their projects after a decade of debate.
The Malden City Council earlier this month unanimously approved an Inclusionary Zoning Policy in a 10-0 vote, requiring new developments of eight or more units to set aside at least 15% of units for rental households making 50% of Malden’s area median income or less and for for-sale households making up to 80% of AMI.
City officials enacted the policy after growing outcry in the past two years over rising rents for the city with a majority of lower-income residents. Malden is one of the last inner suburbs to adopt an inclusionary zoning policy, more than a decade behind Somerville, Cambridge and Boston.
Fresh off a boom period of market-rate apartment development, Malden now must find a way to build affordable housing amid a lack of developable space.
“The biggest challenge in Malden is finding land of the size and affordability to make stuff happen,” Malden At-Large City Councilor Stephen Winslow said in an interview. “We’re a built-out community. It’s a harder dynamic than it might have been 20-to-30 years ago.”
The city of approximately 60,000 residents has grown by roughly 10% over the past decade, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. During that time, multifamily developers built market-rate apartment complexes across the city, drawn by the MBTA Commuter Rail and Orange Line connection to Boston, Winslow said.
Mack-Cali Realty Corp. nearly fully leased up its 326-luxury unit rental property The Emery in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic in January. The Green Cities Cos. acquired the 295-unit Strata apartment complex in February for $95.5M, announcing a value-add improvement plan for the transit-oriented development. In the past five years, new apartment buildings to open include the J Malden Center, Residences at Malden Station, Halstead Malden Square and Exchange Street Apartments.
Malden Mayor Gary Christenson in 2019 established the Malden Affordable Housing Trust in response to a growing outcry from residents who protested rising rents at market-rate housing. At the same time, the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council released a study showing 56% of Malden households were lower-income, a quarter of which were extremely low-income. The concerns grew louder during the pandemic, when housing instability was pushed to the forefront.
“People were glad to see our downtown apartments being added and taking advantage of the train station," Winslow said. “But they felt they were more luxury things that were really expensive for the average Maldonian.”
Maldonians and city officials told the MAPC in 2019 they were worried about traffic, gentrification and displacement with market-rate development. At the same time, the city had just 2,542 affordable units, or 10% of the needed inventory, for the 67% of residents considered rent-burdened.
“For every five low-income households in Malden, there is at most one deed-restricted Affordable Housing unit,” the MAPC report stated.
Malden had the fastest-growing rent in the Greater Boston region between January 2019 and 2020, up 15.3%, according to Zumper. Despite renters showing a preference for suburban offerings during the pandemic, Malden’s rents have since declined approximately 10% since last September, according to Zumper.
At 50% of AMI, a Malden renter would pay $1,203 for a deed-restricted one-bedroom unit, according to a June report by the city council's Inclusionary Zoning Advisory Group. The group analyzed the potential effect on development of a new policy, comparing different affordable housing percentages and their effect on return on investment for developers.
“While there may be some initial effects on the real estate market as a result of a new requirement, over time, the cost of land is likely to adjust and absorb the cost of providing the inclusionary units,” the advisory group wrote in the report.
Just under half of Malden’s city area, or 1,531 acres, is “free from hard constraints on development,” according to the MAPC. Winslow said there is a lack of brownfield sites to build affordable housing, but Malden now has an affordable housing development tool to work with.
Angie Liou, a board member of Malden’s Affordable Housing Trust, is the executive director of the Asian Community Development Corp., which works with Malden’s Asian residents in guiding them through homebuying and rental assistance. She relayed concerns from the city’s affordable housing advocates over the lack of space for new affordable projects.
“The great majority of that inventory has been built from years ago, the city of Malden hasn't added any significant number of affordable housing,” she said. “I do think other folks feel it is not enough.”