12 Mass. Communities Face Looming Deadline For MBTA Multifamily Plans. Here’s Where They All Stand
One of the most ambitious housing laws in Massachusetts history is approaching a major deadline, with the first round of communities required to submit zoning plans that will allow tens of thousands of new multifamily units to be developed in Greater Boston’s inner core.
The 12 cities and towns classified as rapid transit communities in the MBTA Communities law, meaning they have at least one subway or trolley stop, must submit draft zoning guidelines to the state by Dec. 31. According to a Bisnow analysis, these communities are in various stages of completion: Some are right on the cusp of full compliance, others are struggling to put forth a plan due to hurdles presented by the state guidelines, and one is pushing back because it doesn’t think it should be part of this group.
The law was enacted by former Gov. Charlie Baker in 2021 as a way to uniformly push towns and cities to allow more multifamily housing around their transit stops. Under the law, communities must create at least one zoning district of “reasonable size” that allows multifamily housing to be built as of right, meaning developers don’t need to obtain a special permit. The law has garnered praise from developers and housing advocates alike who see it as a new opportunity to get housing into high-barrier-to-entry communities.
“There are communities that might not see the benefit of creating more housing, and if every community has that perspective, we're going to end up short, like we are right now,” said Doug Arsham, senior managing director and head of the Boston office for national multifamily developer Mill Creek Residential. “The MBTA Communities Act is great because it creates a carrot-and-stick approach to incentivize folks to create housing, and it's a law.”
State leaders have been forceful in making sure communities comply with the law. In May, Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell issued a warning that towns and cities that don't comply could be subject to civil suits or liability under federal and state fair housing laws. Communities that don’t comply are also at risk of losing out on two major state programs: the MassWorks Infrastructure Program and the Housing Choice Initiative.
However, the state has made compromises on the law. A group of these communities pushed back on the fact that the law focused solely on residential development, and they wanted to encourage developers to add ground-floor commercial space. In August, the state changed part of the law to require all of the zoning plans to allow for ground-floor commercial space, something city and town officials and residents said will protect small businesses in their main corridors. Along with the mixed-use change, the state tacked on 12 new grant programs that communities are at risk of losing if they don’t comply.
“I do think those communities will vote to comply, just because they understand the actual penalties of losing access to a number of key grant programs,” said Jonathan Berk, a community development consultant who sits on the board of Abundant Housing Massachusetts. “Also the embarrassment of not complying, I've heard that mentioned by a number of town officials in smaller towns that say, ‘This is embarrassing for our community if we're the ones that think we're above supporting our state’s housing crisis.’”
Below are summaries of where all 12 communities stand in their efforts to pass the required multifamily zoning.
Under the law, Braintree is required to create by right zoning for 3,769 units, with 50% of them being within a half-mile of MBTA stops. The zoning overhaul came as the city was working on its own master plan for its commercial districts. The last major public update the city gave was at a Jan. 10 planning board meeting, where Planning & Community Development Director Melissa SantucciRozzi laid out what steps the city would need to take to comply. In a Sept. 12 meeting, she said that the city’s draft plan would be discussed at a public hearing on Oct. 20.
Although housing advocates are optimistic the city will bring zoning that will permit thousands of new units to be built, some residents haven't shared that sentiment. At the end of August, Florida-based ZOM Living withdrew its plans to build hundreds of units in the city after it received major pushback from residents and city officials who argued that the project would bring in more traffic and overcrowd the local school system.
Brookline is one of two towns — the other 10 are cities — that have to file draft zoning at the end of the year. This means it will need to bring the matter in front of town representatives rather than an elected board. Under the law, the town will need to create by right zoning for at least 6,990 units, with 90% of them located half a mile from the station.
The town has proposed two draft plans, one of which will focus on Brookline’s main mixed-use corridor, Harvard Street. The other, called M-District+, will focus on a zoning overlay with multiple underlying districts. The town was at the forefront of an effort to adjust the law to allow housing units in mixed-use buildings with commercial space on the ground floor, NBC Boston reported in August.
The town will have its fall town meetings Nov. 14-16, Dec. 5-7 and Dec. 12-14, according to its website.
Cambridge needs to have as of right zoning for 13,477 units, 90% of which need to be located within half a mile of all MBTA stops. The city has one Green line stop at Lechmere and five Red Line stops: Kendall Square, Central Square, Harvard Square, Porter Square and Alewife.
Although Cambridge doesn't have a public, comprehensive plan laid out on its website like other cities and towns on this list, the city filed an action plan in January that previewed how it was planning to comply with the law. The city said it would look into existing zoning districts or districts that might already comply with the state’s guidelines, stating that most of the city is already zoned for multifamily housing. It said there could be a subset of these existing districts that could be combined into one compliant district.
Lily Linke, the MBTA Communities engagement manager for housing advocate Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association, said planning for this zoning overhaul may not be as difficult for cities like Cambridge that have been zoning for higher density for years.
“Communities like Somerville and Cambridge, this is not as much of a challenge for them, partly just because the density that is required in many places of those cities, they already far exceed that,” Linke said.
Chelsea needs to pass as of right zoning for 3,639 units. The city’s planning board held a July 26 meeting to update the board about its plan to draft new zoning.
In the meeting, Judi Barrett, owner of Barrett Planning Group LLC, laid out that the city could run into a number of problems with the zoning, including potential permitting issues around its flood plains. Barrett also said the affordability aspect of the law could hinder the city’s own inclusionary development policy, as the state has capped the affordability zoning requirements at 10% in an effort to make sure projects are not “economically infeasible” for developers, according to the law.
Everett needs to zone for a minimum multifamily unit capacity of 4,552. The city’s planning director, Matt Lattanzi, said that the only change the city seemingly needs to make is to its Commercial Triangle district, where the zoning today only allows mixed-use proposals by right and residential uses by special permit.
“To comply, we simply need to allow residential by-right (to the minimum density required under 3A) and continue with our mixed-use by-right at a higher density,” Lattanzi said in an email to Bisnow. “Unlike many communities that are forced to do a substantive zoning overhaul, the City of Everett has a much easier path to compliance.”
Everett’s Commercial Triangle has attracted a number of developers that have begun or completed construction on thousands of units of housing, with the most recent proposal coming from V10 Development for a 600-unit project on the Malden River. But like other communities that have welcomed new development, some of these projects will not fall under the MBTA Communities law because they were given special permits rather than being in a district that has as of right zoning.
Malden needs to have a minimum multifamily capacity of 6,930 new housing units. Like Everett, the city has existing high-density multifamily near its transit stop, but it isn't by right. The city is also hoping to preserve its 15% inclusionary zoning policy in its compliance. Malden has two MBTA stops: Oak Grove and Malden Center.
In June, the city held a public hearing for the plan. Following the hearing, the city asked residents to fill out an MBTA Communities zoning survey, marking the second phase of the city’s community engagement with the new law. The survey will inform the city's next steps.
Medford is revamping its original plan to both comply with the law and further the city’s goals for mixed-use main streets and environmental sustainability. The city needs to zone for 6,443 units near its Medford/Tufts Green Line and Wellington Orange Line stops, and officials are looking at how the adjustment will impact its zoning districts.
“They do have to go back and reconsider some things now that it is an option on the table, but they certainly are moving towards compliance,” CHAPA’s Linke said. “I'm not concerned that they'll get over the finish line, but they do have a little bit more work to do if they want to incorporate that mixed-use requirement.”
Linke provides technical support to communities like Medford, Braintree and Milton to educate, engage and help with outreach efforts for the MBTA Communities law. Several technical assistance options are available through groups like MassHousing Partners, Community One Stop for Growth, and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' land use grants.
The second town on this list, Milton needs to zone for 2,461 units before the Dec. 31 deadline. The town hasn’t had a massive zoning overhaul since 1938, Milton Planning Director Tim Czerwienski said. Milton has broken its zoning up into different subdistricts to meet the requirement. Milton is uniquely positioned because, unlike its rapid transit counterparts, the town has a small trolley system.
On Aug. 10, the Milton Select Board sent a letter to the MBTA asking for clarification on why it was considered a rapid transit community since it deemed its trolley service not up to par with the Red, Green, Orange or Blue lines. Although the town has pushed back on the classification, it is still set to continue zoning as a rapid transit community.
Milton is also the smallest community that is part of the rapid transit group, with its planning group consisting of just three members. The town applied for technical assistance to help with the zoning overhaul.
“The guidelines are very complex,” Czerwienski told Bisnow. “Even for me to try to kind of understand the ins and outs is tough, and then having to communicate that to a general public that's very interested but also may not have the expertise or the language or the knowledge has been really tough.”
The town is scheduled to hold its special town meeting on Dec. 4, when Milton’s 279 town meeting members will vote on the zoning draft.
Newton has 13 village centers, which have gone through an extensive rezoning plan over the past 2.5 years. The city council and the planning committee are gearing up to share their Version 3.0. This third draft to the village zoning plan has reduced capacity to 7,300 units, which on its own doesn't meet the requirements, but with the mixed-use areas that the state changed in the law, its housing capacity comes to 9,330, or 1,000 more than the requirement.
“We’re not just doing this to satisfy MBTA Communities and play with the numbers,” Deborah Crossley, city councilor and chair of Newton’s Zoning and Planning Committee, said in a public July 24 ZAP hearing. “Doing this, most of us believe that we will come up with a set of rules that will help our village centers going into the future and help our housing situation.”
The city of Quincy needs to bring on by right zoning for 11,752 units near its three Red Line and Commuter Rail stops: Quincy Center, North Quincy and Quincy Adams. The city hasn't shared a public plan for its compliance. Quincy officials didn't answer Bisnow’s requests for comment about the plan.
As with other higher-density cities on this list, Revere is close to compliance, with just a few tweaks to its zoning remaining before officials can sleep easy. It is required to add by right zoning for 6,135 housing units.
Revere’s challenges stem from its waterfront, where a lot of the housing developed is on excluded land, which would need an extra permit from the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act.
“The whole underlying idea for this is to make sure we have housing that's easy to produce,” Tom Skwierawski, chief of planning and community development in Revere, told Bisnow. “A lot of the housing has to go through, in some cases, a yearlong permitting effort with the state.”
The city also can't count the work being done at The HYM Investment Group’s Suffolk Downs project, which is planned to bring 10,000 new units of housing in Revere and East Boston, as part of its compliance with the law due to the special permitting the developer had to acquire for the site.
The Somerville Planning Board held an Aug. 3 meeting to update where it stands on compliance with the law, which requires it to zone for 9,067 units.
The biggest hurdle at the time was the commercial zoning that didn’t fit in the state’s zoning requirements, which has since been adjusted. Other issues brought up were the affordability percentages that were mapped out, as well as the canceling of the rule the city has in place stating that a household can't have more than four people living in a unit who aren't relatives.
Somerville Planning Board Chair Michael Capuano expressed displeasure with the law's guidelines at the meeting, saying the city has already done a comprehensive overhaul of its zoning and welcomes transit-oriented housing across the city. At one point, he even raised the idea of taking legal action against the state in an effort to protect what the city has built in recent decades.
“I would just say for the record that the state is always subject to suit,” Capuano said at the planning board meeting. “To the extent that we can, I would encourage us to do so.”
The city is still on track to bring forth a zoning draft by the Dec. 31 deadline. It isn't clear if the recent amendments to the law have made the process easier for the city.
“Somerville has been one, if not the, foremost community in the commonwealth in its initiative to build housing around T stops,” Capuano said. “How is it we are not fighting having to comply with the MBTA Communities stick that is being forced on communities like Brookline and Lexington?”