Act Now to Strengthen Transportation Bills

Housing, transportation and climate solutions are inherently linked. We’re pleased the House last week proposed new revenue and capital investments for our struggling transportation system. Now it’s your turn: please tell your state representative that these bills are a top priority for you and ask them to make the proposals even better with targeted amendments.

Stand with us now and tell the Massachusetts House to support comprehensive, statewide transportation funding

House 4508 (revenue) includes an increase in the gas tax (5 cents) and the Uber/Lyft single-occupancy fee, as well as raising minimum corporate taxes and closing a rental car sales tax loophole. House 4506 (bonding) authorizes borrowing for much-needed MBTA, regional bus/rural transit, and other capital investments.

We support targeted amendments championed by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) and Transportation for Massachusetts. Please ask your state representative to support these amendments:

  • Eliminate a provision that would reduce the gas tax if there is an interstate agreement on the transportation and climate initiative.  Amendments #32 and #37 (Rep Ciccolo).
  • Add language allowing cities & towns to raise and spend money for transportation, via a “regional ballot initiative” (#273 filed by Reps Vargas and Madaro) and/or a better version of the “Local Infrastructure Development Program” (#120 filed by Rep Barber).
  • Improve the proposed Congestion Commission by adding a Regional Planning Agency seat.  Amendment # 59 (Rep Meschino)
  • Do more to curb traffic congestion through provisions on smarter tolling (#12 filed by Rep Peisch and #81 by Rep Madaro, both amending House 4508).  Please add this to the list of amendments you support.

Click the button below to go to the action page and send a message to your State Rep.

Thank you for taking action to improve our transportation system!

Send a message to your State Rep

A progressive case for Housing Choice

For more than ten years, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and our member organizations have been leading voices for progressive zoning reform on Beacon Hill. Our efforts to improve outdated development laws have included proposals to make it illegal for cities and towns to discriminate in zoning and permitting decisions, to require all communities to build their fair share of apartments, and to allow accessory apartments across the state.

In 2016, we worked closely with the state Senate to pass a sweeping zoning and housing bill that included all of those remarkable items after a difficult and lengthy debate. Yet more than two years later, none of it has been enacted into law because some of the provisions were steadfastly opposed by real estate interests, while others were equally opposed by some lobbyists for cities and towns. We were deadlocked.

Eighteen months ago, Governor Baker unveiled a proposal to help break the stalemate. The Housing Choice initiative included a program to incentivize communities to build more housing—which is already being implemented—as well as a companion piece of legislation, called the Housing Choice bill, which did not get taken up for a vote last session.

We know there is much to be done. But the Governor’s bill itself represents a significant and progressive step forward in land-use and housing reform. In our view, here are some of the benefits:

  1. It creates a powerful incentive for private developers to build affordable housing.

In Greater Boston (and probably elsewhere in the state), most multifamily housing (3+ units) is built through “special permits,” which can be unpredictable, expensive, and difficult to secure, requiring a supermajority local vote to be approved. The Housing Choice bill allows developments including at least 10% affordable housing in smart growth locations to be approved by a simple majority. This would be a powerful new incentive for market-rate developers to include affordable units in their projects that would not be built otherwise. This will be especially helpful in encouraging developers to propose new mixed-income housing in the many towns that have no affordable housing requirements and limited number of apartments. This provision was recommended by the Alliance and incorporated into the bill by the Housing Committee, chaired by Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Joe Boncore, before it was reported out favorably. Governor Baker chose to include this provision in the Housing Choice bill he filed this year.

  1. It will help more towns in Massachusetts produce their fair share of housing, gradually reducing the pressure on overheated communities like Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

More communities need to step up and build the housing that we all need. In the seven years after the Great Recession in 2008, Boston alone built 37% of all the apartments constructed in Massachusetts. Together, the top ten cities and towns produced nearly two-thirds of the state’s apartments. Yet these are the same places suffering the most from the housing crisis. To address the long-term dysfunction of our housing market, we need more of the surrounding communities to do their part and house a fair share of the region’s growth. However, it is notoriously difficult to pass zoning and permitting for apartments in many communities even with the support of planning staff and their elected and appointed local officials. This is especially true in communities with a Town Meeting form of government. The Housing Choice bill will restore majority-rules democracy and level the playing field across the region.

  1. It incentivizes climate-friendly development.

The Housing Choice bill includes locational criteria that will make it easier for municipalities to update their zoning and allow more apartments and mixed-use in smart growth locations like neighborhood and town centers, transit-accessible districts, and existing commercial corridors, but not in locations that encourage traffic-inducing sprawl. Furthermore, the bill allows communities to adopt Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) programs and promotes Open Space Residential Design, which clusters homes and preserves open space. Just as importantly, Housing Choice makes it easier for cities and towns to bring their parking requirements in line with economic and environmental reality. Limiting asphalt can help reduce flooding, while reducing unnecessary parking makes development less expensive and discourages air and water polluting sprawl.

  1. It supports age-friendly, walkable neighborhoods.

Housing Choice makes it easier for cities and towns to adopt accessory dwelling unit (ADU) ordinances, which allow homeowners to create small, affordable housing units in their single-family homes. The AARP and public health organizations have identified ADUs as a critical priority for seniors because they allow family members or caretakers to live on site so that seniors can age in place. But ADUs benefit everyone, because more families need flexible, multi-generational living arrangements, and they allow homeowners—especially seniors on fixed incomes—to collect modest rental income while dealing with with increases in the cost of living. Additionally, by encouraging compact development in smart growth locations as mentioned above, zoning changes and special permits facilitated by Housing Choice can help communities become more walkable over time—the cheapest, most equitable way to get around and maintain an active lifestyle.

  1. It begins to address an underlying cause of our state’s racial and economic segregation.

The last two times we had an affordable housing crisis in our region, we solved it with waves of “double-deckers” and “triple-deckers” early in the 1900s; and then with apartment buildings in the 1960s and 70s. These solutions, which housed large numbers of low-income residents and immigrants, are impossible today because of restrictive zoning. I would contend that single-family zoning requiring large lots is the number one driver of racial and economic segregation in Massachusetts. Not only does it make homeownership too expensive for renters, it has throttled apartment production—we build only half of the apartments that we used to 40 years ago. This housing market dysfunction lies at the heart of racial wealth inequality and lack of social mobility. Housing Choice will enable renters and people of color, a minority of the population in almost every municipality, to have a more meaningful voice in development decision-making and open up more neighborhoods where they could live.

  1. Without progress on this bill, political leaders and major stakeholders are unlikely to tackle the more challenging issues of affordability, displacement pressures, tenant protections, and transit justice.

The Governor took a risk making housing and zoning a priority, and we applaud and encourage him for that stance. Of course, we’ve been clear that we need to do much more to tackle the housing crisis in our communities.

Here are three additional victories that are within reach this session:

  1. There is a historic opportunity to secure new revenue for affordable housing. The House has proposed increasing deeds fees on real estate transactions to increase the state’s match to communities participating in the Community Preservation Act, unlocking millions of dollars that could be used for local affordable housing projects.
  2. More significantly, we can build on Gov. Baker’s climate proposal to leverage real estate transactions to generate funds for climate adaptation projects. Affordable housing should be part of the equation and the transfer fees could potentially raise over $100 million in new funds annually.
  3. Then there’s transit justice. With transportation reform coming up this year, fair fares for riders would go a long way to making affordable housing throughout the region more accessible. It is not feasible nor reasonable for low-income residents in our Gateway Cities to pay $4000 per year for commuter rail.

We understand that Housing Choice does not directly remedy segregation and displacement, both vital issues requiring new tools and solutions. That is why we also support important tenant protections like the right to counsel in order to prevent evictions; incentives and requirements for more communities to build apartments; and a new anti-discrimination law that would make it illegal for communities to exclude low-income people through zoning and permitting.

Unfortunately, outside of the Senate’s historic vote in June of 2016, passing a comprehensive zoning reform bill has proven impossible.

We shouldn’t give up. But we should take advantage of this unique moment and pass the Governor’s Housing Choice proposal to take an important step toward our goal.


The membership of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance includes organizations working on housing, environment, planning, design and public health.

Statement on Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Bill

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance supports Governor Baker’s Housing Choice bill.

We can’t confront our housing and climate crises without local zoning changes, so we hope to see the Legislature fast-track Housing Choice in 2019. We appreciate the Governor’s support for including in his bill a key reform drafted by the Joint Committee on Housing that will encourage developers to include more of the affordable homes that our state desperately needs.

Of course, passing Housing Choice is not the end of efforts to make Massachusetts more affordable and livable for all of its residents. It’s just the beginning.

Our cities and towns are struggling with a range of housing challenges. Ongoing dialogue among key stakeholders could lead to further progress on expanding affordability and multifamily housing near public transportation, reducing construction and legal costs, improving local planning and rezoning, curbing sprawl, and accelerating the production of accessory apartments.

These are too many issues to address in a single bill, which is why the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance has not filed comprehensive legislation this year. Instead, we believe that the Legislature and Administration should advance Housing Choice immediately and other initiatives opportunistically over the next 18 months.

One way of navigating this complex landscape has been suggested by Sen. Harriette Chandler. Rather than bog down Housing Choice until the end of the two-year session, she recommends establishing a joint House and Senate task force that could more fully address the housing issues raised by legislators, with the goal of making some additional recommendations for action. This could give legislators and advocates the opportunity to dialogue and build support for creative solutions.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is committed to housing equity and acknowledges that additional action will be needed on the following issues:

  1. New revenues for affordable housing.Ideas include a transfer fee on real estate transactions, an increased state match for Community Preservation Act, an income tax surcharge, or appropriating a larger annual chunk of the Housing Bond bill authorization passed last year. There needs to be discussion about how to preserve and increase affordable housing during this critical window of time.
  2. Fighting neighborhood displacement and regional segregation.We will support efforts led by low-income residents and communities of color to reduce displacement. The right to counsel in eviction proceedings would be a good place to start, since research has consistently shown that this investment leads to more positive outcomes and prevents homelessness. In addition, we strongly support actions to eliminate discrimination in housing, zoning and permitting decisions.
  3. Transit justice and neighborhood stabilization.While some communities suffer from overheated markets, other parts of the state continue to deal with vacancy and deterioration. Many of the low-income people displaced from the Boston area have been forced to relocate to smaller cities with less expensive housing, but which have poor public transportation connecting them to jobs and services. We need to make sure that transit service is convenient and affordable. The state should also pursue targeted reforms and investments to strengthen our older neighborhoods to ensure that they can thrive as mixed-income communities with a good quality of life.

We look forward to working with all parties to finally make progress on our deep housing crisis.

André Leroux

Executive Director

Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance

YIMBYtown and homes for all

A terrific team of local volunteers, with support from the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, CHAPA, and other groups, recently organized and hosted Boston YIMBYtown 2018, a national conference of pro-housing activists. Over 320 participants registered for part or all of the four-day gathering.

The theme of the conference was equity and inclusion. Many of the Greater Boston activists have begun to identify as YIMBYs in order to combat local opposition to housing—especially affordable housing—that is too often motivated by a desire to keep low-income residents and people of color out of their communities. Massachusetts housing numbers show that only a small number of cities and towns are building the housing that the whole region needs. As a result of this systemic discrimination, we are now one of the most segregated regions in the United States.

However, there is increasing concern and backlash from low-income residents in Boston and elsewhere that today’s overheated market is pushing them out of their neighborhoods. A main topic of conversation at YIMBYtown was how to navigate these tricky politics and be respectful of differences among communities. There was a strong consensus among conference participants that the YIMBY movement needs to support local residents who are fighting displacement; promote more mixed-income and affordable housing; and fight for development and density in high-income neighborhoods that are excluding others.

A tremendous line-up of speakers addressed these issues and others, such as: understanding what “equity” really means and how to center it in your organization; how to promote affordable homeownership and build community wealth for low-income residents; how to tap into your personal experience to build connections with people from different backgrounds; and how to connect to affordable housing resources and campaigns. Speakers included:


In addition, the conference planning committee secured scholarship funding so that local residents and others from around the country could attend at little or no cost.

These issues came to the fore when City Life/Vida Urbana and other local neighborhood groups came to Roxbury Community College with about 80 residents and activists (and a marching band!) to protest the rampant development of “luxury” housing in and around their neighborhoods. They took the stage and issued a challenge to the YIMBY movement to acknowledge their pain, recognize their leadership, and call on individuals to sign a pledge supporting their values and goals. They were respectful, we were respectful, and it was important to face residents directly. The local planning team hopes to continue the dialogue and find opportunities to support their work and collaborate.

Follow the conversation from the conference (and beyond) on Twitter using the hashtag #YIMBYtown or #YIMBY. We will continue to post photos, powerpoints, and other materials on the conference website as they become available.

Check out these thoughtful participant reflections from the conference:

And this selected news coverage:

Finally, the conference ended with a powerful panel of officials title “Beyond our Backyards,” including Sheila Dillon of the City of Boston, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern, and DHCD Undersecretary Janelle Chan, moderated by Dana LeWinter from CHAPA. You can see the watch the panel filmed by CCTV here.

Boston-Area Communities Should Loosen Restrictions for Accessory Dwelling Units

BOSTON—A review of 100 cities and towns around (but not including) Boston finds that loosening local zoning laws to allow for the development of more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) would help ease the region’s housing shortage without creating any significant problems, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute in partnership with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

Read the full study here >

The human cost of bad zoning: Meet Bryan Bryson

Every day marks a step closer to the end of the 2018 legislative session on July 31. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be telling the stories of people across the Commonwealth who can’t wait for vibrant, affordable communities.

Help us broadcast their stories by sharing them with your friends, legislators, and local officials. Encourage them to help pass a Great Neighborhoods bill now. We’ll post one story each day–find them at and at #GreatNeighborhoodsMA.

Today, let me introduce you to Bryan.

“My name is Bryan Bryson, I’m a proud resident and community member of Dorchester.  I’m also an MIT Professor.

I’m here today to tell you the story of being priced out of my neighborhood in Cambridge where I lived for a number of years.  And to say that if this is happening to me, a professor making a very good salary, imagine how it’s impacting teachers, nurses, and other working families throughout our Commonwealth…”

Click here to read Bryan’s full story and share it on social media.

Much of our state’s zoning hasn’t been updated in decades. This is one of the reasons why our cities and towns haven’t been building the kinds of housing that would enable more young families and seniors to stay in their communities.

For example, Massachusetts needs more apartments. Boston alone has built more than a third of the state’s apartments in the last seven years, and just ten communities have built nearly two-thirds. That means that the remaining 341 cities and towns combined have built only one-third of the state’s apartments–nowhere near enough to maintain stable vacancy rates and prices.

A Great Neighborhoods bill will make it easier for communities to update their zoning, make development less contentious and expensive, and create more housing choices that will help stabilize prices in the region.

Learn more and take action at

House leaders outline potential path for housing, land-use bill

by The Daily News of Newburyport

BOSTON — House Democrats held private meetings over the fall and winter with housing and land use stakeholders that led officials on Wednesday to outline areas of agreement and plans to build support within the House for a major bill tackling housing production and smart growth techniques.

Reps. Stephen Kulik and Sarah Peake, both members of Speaker Robert DeLeo’s leadership team, led the meetings with officials from the real estate, planning, municipal government, environmental and housing sectors.

Read Full Article Here >

Momentum for more housing choices in the state

Lawmakers need to create incentives
for communities to increase housing stock


Jan 2, 2018

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER joined the fight to promote housing last week—adding more push to the consensus that 2018 is the year to tackle the commonwealth’s housing crisis head on.  As we head into the 2018 session, it’s time for the Legislature to pass bills that will make it easier for our cities and towns to produce more housing while creating healthy, walkable, and equitable communities.

The governor announced a housing production goal, incentives to encourage city and town officials to back housing, and targeted legislation to make it easier for officials to get good housing measures approved.  All are great steps supported by smart growth and housing advocates.

In fact, the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance had proposed legislation with similar “opt-in” programs, most recently in a bill that the state Senate passed last June. This has been a key plank of our “Great Neighborhoods” campaign, and kudos to the Baker/Polito Administration for making it happen.

Baker’s announcement continued the momentum generated recently by 14 metro mayors, led by Boston’s Marty Walsh and Somerville’s Joseph Curtatone, who launched a regional housing partnership. Over the next six months, the mayors will collaborate to set a regional housing production goal, address local zoning deficiencies, and develop effective housing strategies.

Over the past year, the Legislature has already been working on a significant housing and zoning reform bill. The “Great Neighborhoods” campaign seeks, like Baker and the mayors, to build more multifamily housing and accessory (“in-law”) apartments. However, our campaign goes further to provide municipalities with 21st century zoning and planning tools, curb sprawl, and allow for more predictable permitting in all communities.

With housing costs rising in Greater Boston, there is a moral imperative for everyone to act. Too many low- and middle-class families are precariously housed. This instability lowers school performance, creates immense public health costs, and even prevents residents from being engaged citizens.

At the same time, the economic future of our commonwealth requires that we attract and keep the young talent that drives our innovation economy.

Recognizing the crisis, Baker set an aggressive but realistic goal of producing 135,000 more homes by 2025. This number is consistent with our needs—and doable if we start in 2018.

The new Housing Choice program rewards municipalities for building housing. Cities and towns qualify by creating a certain percentage of units over the prior five years, or by a combination of production and adoption of best practices. The carrot for winning the Housing Choice designation is money, including a dedicated grant program, technical assistance and priority funding for state capital dollars.

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance salutes the governor for encouraging communities to address local barriers to housing and smart growth. We should do more to address the state-level barriers as well.

In addition to incentives, we think there should be a healthy discussion about some minimum standards across the state. All communities have a role and responsibility to address housing injustice and affordability.

There are also many places where we need statewide consistency and modernization, considering that Massachusetts zoning law has not been significantly updated since 1975. Areas ripe for reform include: special permits, board training, master plans, appeals, and site plan review, to name a few.

The Senate passed a zoning reform bill in June 2016, which was refiled this year by Acting Senate President Harriette Chandler. The House is working on its own version.  Both bills directly tackle such issues in addition to building multifamily housing in more communities, making accessory apartments easier, and prohibiting discrimination in zoning decisions.

The “Great Neighborhoods” coalition is ready for the next steps.  Our advocates range from housing and economic justice organizations to environmental and mobility groups to business and municipal leaders and we’re building a strong grassroots base to help pass this much-needed reform.

As a commonwealth, we dug ourselves into this housing crisis by limiting the housing we allowed for several decades.  It will take hard work to dig our way out, but momentum is clearly on our side. Let’s create healthy communities, keep our region economically competitive, and build more housing by passing these bills.

André Leroux is executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.  Lisa Wong is the former mayor of Fitchburg and deputy director of the Asian American Civic Association.

Housing Choice: An Important Win

Yesterday, the Governor launched the most important new smart growth program in years, and I was honored to stand behind him during the event in Roxbury. It is a big win for the Baker-Polito Administration to make zoning reform and housing production a priority.

I want to share with you our press statement on yesterday’s announcement. We still have a lot of work to do to build support for passing a Great Neighborhoods bill in the Legislature, but the Housing Choice Initiative creates important momentum, rewards cities and towns for doing the right things, and creates a coordinated approach to these issues throughout state agencies.

Establishing a municipal opt-in program with real incentives for smart growth has been a long-time goal for the Alliance. We thank Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito for their accomplishment.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

Governor Baker Launches “Housing Choice Initiative”

Key victory for Great Neighborhoods campaign

Press Statement
December 11, 2017

The Great Neighborhoods campaign, led by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance (MSGA) and a statewide coalition of advocacy organizations, local leaders, business groups and residents, declared a significant victory with the announcement of Governor Baker’s Housing Choice Initiative. The new program will incentivize cities and towns to improve their local zoning practices and build more housing in sensible locations like downtowns, town centers and redevelopment areas. It also establishes a statewide goal of 135,000 new homes created by 2025.

“Housing Choice will encourage communities to build more of the homes that we need in walkable and welcoming places,” said André Leroux, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance and spokesman for the Great Neighborhoods campaign. “We are very pleased that the Baker-Polito Administration recognizes the fundamental role that zoning reform plays in solving our housing crisis. Local leaders, business groups and residents from all across the state have been asking for an incentive program for cities and towns for many years and kudos to the Governor for making it happen.”

“We have long recommended that the Commonwealth provide the kinds of incentives for housing development that Governor Baker is offering today. So it is particularly gratifying for us to see this kind of support from the Administration. We believe this program complements the Great Neighborhoods legislation currently pending in the State House, and we look forward to working with legislators to pass a major land-use bill this year to make the Housing Choice Initiative even more effective.”

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance leads a broad campaign coalition calling on legislators to pass a “Great Neighborhoods” bill in 2018 to reform planning, zoning, and permitting in the Commonwealth. One of the campaign’s principal goals is to create more housing, especially for young people and seniors.

The Senate version of the Great Neighborhoods bill (Senate Bill 81) is sponsored by Senate President Harriette Chandler. It is a re-file of legislation adopted last June by that chamber.

The House bill (House Bill 2420) was filed by House Ways and Means Vice-Chair Stephen Kulik and Division Leader Sarah Peake, and is currently under review by the Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government.

Support for addressing our state’s zoning and housing deficiencies has been rising. Nearly 80 legislators co-sponsored at least one of the Great Neighborhoods bills, and last week, 14 mayors and managers in the Greater Boston area launched a regional housing partnership to address the issues in a collaborative effort.

Leroux concluded, “Housing Choice is a great first step by the Baker/Polito Administration to address the crisis of reasonably-priced housing in Massachusetts. It is clear that for the Commonwealth to remain economically competitive, we must build more housing. But we must do so in a way that protects open space, creates healthy and walkable communities, and gives communities the tools they need to maintain the high quality of life that Massachusetts’ cities and towns enjoy.”

The last time that Massachusetts’ zoning law was significantly updated was in 1975.

For more information:

Spotlight: Accessory Apartments in the Great Neighborhoods Bill

The Boston Sunday Globe ran a feature on the front page of its Real Estate section this past week titled, “Can In-Law Apartments Help Ease the Housing Crisis?” and cited a State House bill—our Great Neighborhoods bill—that would establish some statewide rules for accessory apartments.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

Let’s take a look at what these “accessory dwelling units” (or ADUs for short) are and what they might look like. Then I’ll explain the ADU provision included as one piece of the development reforms included in the Great Neighborhoods bill.

Accessory apartments are modest-sized housing units that belong to the same property as its main home. This could take the form of a basement apartment, an in-law suite, a converted garage, or a “tiny home” in the yard.

The idea was widely practiced in the past, and it is coming back strongly as young people look for housing they can afford in desirable communities where single-family home prices are out of their reach; and also for older homeowners who want to stay where they are but would like a family member, caretaker, or simply a renter to help make that possible. It’s an invaluable form of housing for disabled family members who want to live independently but with support nearby.

The beauty of ADUs is that it allows homeowners to contribute to solving our housing crisis while doing something that helps make ends meet and ultimately increases the value of their property. It’s a win-win.

Additionally, it’s a tool that costs the government no money and creates affordable units without subsidy. ADUs allow incremental growth that fits snugly into single-family neighborhoods, with designs that are unique and customized.

It’s an idea that’s catching on in Massachusetts. The City of Newton, for example, passed an accessory apartment ordinance this April that will make it a real option for many single-family homeowners in that community.

However, there are 351 cities and towns in the state, and large numbers of them don’t allow ADUs at all, or have many rules that restrict their use.

That’s where our Great Neighborhoods proposal comes in. Passing a local ADU ordinance is hard, and requires a super-majority—generally two-thirds—of the City Council, Board of Selectmen or Town Meeting to approve. Rather than have 351 fights across the Commonwealth, the proposed legislation (House Bill 2420 and Senate Bill 81) would establish consistent minimum standards across the state. Yet each community would be able to tailor its own local rules in important ways.

The Great Neighborhoods proposal would allow property owners the right to build an internal accessory apartment within their single-family home on lot sizes of 5,000 square feet and larger. There must be a separate entrance to the unit from the outside or the inside of the home, and it shall not be sold separately from the main home.

The municipality may require owner-occupancy on the premises and may also cap the total number of ADUs at 5% of the community’s total housing units. Finally, the ADU may be no larger than 900 square feet and no more than one additional parking space may be required.

And that’s it! If the municipality wants to create additional rules to allow freestanding ADUs, they are free to do so at their discretion.

This provision was widely and intensely debated during last year’s State Senate debate on the bill, and we believe that most people were satisfied that the result is a fair compromise that makes this tool available to all cities and towns while respecting local authority.

Sign our online petition supporting Great Neighborhoods legislation.

We welcome your thoughts. Feel free to reach out to me at

Other resources and articles:


How Cities Get “Granny Flats” Wrong (City Lab)

Are Accessory Dwelling Units Allowed in Your Town? (Strong Towns)

ADUs: A Flexible, Free-Market Housing Solution (Strong Towns)

André Leroux is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

Senate Housing Report Advances Smart Growth

The Massachusetts State Senate issued a special housing report on Wednesday with 19 recommendations. Smart growth proposals include:

  1. Leveraging state land to develop additional affordable housing, particularly near public transportation;
  2. Property tax relief for low-income homeowners in exchange for the option to purchase the property down the road for permanent affordable housing;
  3. Requiring every municipality to allow apartments to be built in one or more suitable locations;
  4. Adequate resources for the Smart Growth Housing Trust Fund;
  5. Support for Community Land Trusts;
  6. Allowing home owners to create “accessory dwelling units” on existing properties; and
  7. Mandatory training for local Planning and Zoning Boards.

The Special Housing Commission, which included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, was created by Senate President Stan Rosenberg to address the housing crisis in the Commonwealth.

Since most of the real power to achieve housing production is on the local level, zoning is a big target.  The report calls out our zoning reform bill, Senate Bill 2144: An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities, in particular, for further exploration by the Legislature.

The report proposes additional ways to lift zoning barriers:

One is to require every community to allow some reasonable level of multifamily housing.  A third of our 351 communities allow only single family homes and 207 have not permitted a building with more than 5 units in over a decade.  With millennials and downsizing baby boomers demanding multifamily housing, this is a major reason why rents and prices are up.  This proposal is already in House 1111 promoted by CHAPA, an Alliance member.

At a time when the average number living in a household is falling, many single family neighborhoods consist of homes that have become too large for present needs.  Yet, local zoning makes it difficult for residents to adapt their homes by adding an accessory unit for relatives or to rent.  The State Senate report recommends allowing one accessory dwelling unit “as of right” on any lot that is above a reasonable minimum size.

State-owned land is potentially a key asset for affordable housing.  If the State can lease these properties to affordable housing developers at below market value, the economics could work.  This is a particularly important strategy for areas close to public transit, where land values—and gentrification– are rising.  Last fall, Governor Baker embarked on a program of leasing state properties, but most state agencies would need new state law to sell or lease below market value.

An intriguing idea in the report is creating a new program, by local option, for municipalities to offer property tax relief to seniors and/or persons with moderate income in return for the right of first refusal when the home is sold.  When the homeowner is ready to sell, the municipality can assign that right to an affordable housing developer.

There are many other great ideas in the report, which you can read by clicking here.  Senators Linda Dorcena-Forry and Harriet Chandler led the Commission and deserve enormous credit for their approach. They and their staffs ensured that the diverse set of stakeholders talked with each other and found common ground.

Now it is time to get many of these ideas into law.

Smart Growth Spotlight: Tension in the Burbs

Our region may indeed be the Hub of the Universe (who’s to say?), but we trail many other metro areas in the U.S. and the world when it comes to building interesting, dense, and lively development in the suburbs.

In some ways, we’re learning. On October 26, Concord officials and community members celebrated the opening of Brookside Square, a mixed use development close to its commuter rail station in West Concord village. The 74 apartments and 36,000 square feet of office space built by Oaktree Development will add to West Concord’s luster. It is a highly walkable village, with a mixture of restaurants and retail shops and—perhaps surprisingly—a small business incubator space. 

Concord has been thinking about this moment for years—Brookside Square replaced a fading commercial complex that, sooner or later, would have been redeveloped. Concord knew what it wanted and got it. There is more foot traffic for local merchants.  There are amenities to help draw young professionals, including a “pocket park” built by the developer that will be accessible to the public via a network of walking trails along the banks of Nashoba Brook and Assabet River. The property will connect with the regional Bruce Freeman Rail Trail and Bike Path when it is completed.

In another local example, the Town of Winchester re-zoned its Center Business District in June. Although Winchester has a very walkable town center and commuter rail station, it has not grown in years. Now it has an opportunity to double the amount of housing in its town center, bring new customers for their local businesses and restaurants, and diversify its tax base.

Although Town Meeting approved the re-zoning by an incredible Town Meeting vote of 136-9, it took many years of hard work, visioning, and organizing to get there. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance was pleased to partner with and support the Town through this process as part of our Great Neighborhoods program.

With appropriate zoning in place, the Town’s parking lot next to the commuter rail station becomes a prime location for a mixed use building that could add housing, jobs, and an active streetscape in addition to parking. In a savvy move, the Town realized that residents needed to visualize what change would look like, so it invested $30,000 in hiring three different architectural firms to design alternatives for the site. The result was that residents weighed in about what they liked and didn’t like regarding each scenario. Not only did excitement build for the possibilities, but the feedback helped the Planning Board develop a set of design guidelines for the entire town center.

Winchester will now take the next step by hosting a “LinkUp” to introduce smart growth builders to the town’s vision. This meeting will be convened by LOCUS, a national organization of private smart growth developers, and it will help establish a frank conversation about the cost of construction, permitting process, and other issues that will help inform the Town as it moves forward.

Similar re-zoning examples include Newburyport, which in September passed a Chapter 40R smart growth district around its commuter rail station, as well as Andover and Mansfield, which also re-zoned around their commuter rail stations this past year.

Affluent communities are fortunate that they can proactively attract private investment to deliver smart growth development that will position their town centers or villages for the future. But sometimes residents see a threat instead—usually a perception of more people, kids and cars (why these may be perceived as threats is a whole other blog post). Between those two perspectives is the challenge of visualizing how developing a parking lot or vacant commercial property will make a difference in our daily lives. 

This challenge of visualizing change is currently being played out in Newtonville, one of Newton’s “villages.” The site is a city-owned parking lot across from a commuter rail station and the famous Star Market that hangs over the MassPike. A community process that started eight years ago led to unanimous votes to re-zone the parcel and offer the land for sale or lease. After considerable study, the City put out a request for proposals in February 2012 that attracted six bids.

The winning bidder proposed 80 apartments (since reduced to 68), 5,000 square feet of street-level retail, and a new public plaza. Austin Street Partners, which (coincidently) includes the developer who just opened Brookside Square in West Concord, is also returning 127 rebuilt parking spaces to Newton and adding 90 underground spaces. 

Unfortunately, it is not clear yet whether the Newtonville story will end like the ones in Concord and Winchester. The Board of Aldermen is expected to vote in the next month and it is likely to be a close vote. 

How did an easy decision become controversial?

Highly vocal opponents don’t visualize the future the same way as the project’s community proponents. Where proponents see new life on the street, opponents visualize auto gridlock.  Where proponents see 17 units affordable to a police officer or teacher, opponents see school costs.  Where proponents see 51 market rate units that will allow young professionals or downsizing baby boomers to stay in Newton, opponents see unwanted “luxury” housing and gentrification. 

With two-thirds of Millennials desiring to live in walkable, transit-accessible places at the same time that seniors shift to apartment living, suburban communities have a real test before them.  Communities like Newtonville need to decide between planned growth and unplanned growth. For its peers like West Concord village, Winchester Center, Andover and Newburyport, the future is already happening.


Newtonville’s Austin Street muncipal parking lot on left, proposed development on right.

Taking Advantage of Big Opportunities

Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are exciting smart growth opportunities.  But they also are magnets for fear—and sometimes anger—about large-scale development and the rising cost of housing.

We were reminded of that fear and anger when WBUR included the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance in a short call-in segment this week on development in those new neighborhoods.  There has been big news coming out of Kendall Square this year, with a proposal to rezone 14 acres for redevelopment of the federally-owned Volpe Center site and MIT’s announcing specifics for six new buildings on parcels rezoned in 2013.

The big picture is very good for smart growth:  there has been a swing away from auto-dependent development in the suburbs and ever-expanding subdivision frontiers and single-use office parks, and towards development in walkable, transit-connected, urban places.  Kendall Square and the South Boston Waterfront are examples of this trend, as parking lots are turning into buildings and people on the street.  We have to make sure that opportunities are maximized, but having the opportunities is exciting.

The rising cost of housing is something we care deeply about and promoting mixed-income neighborhoods is a critical smart growth goal.  That is also a goal of Cambridge and Boston, which have inclusionary zoning requirements for residential developers and linkage fees for non-residential developers so that both help produce deed-restricted affordable housing.  Cambridge is on its way to tripling the linkage fees it requires and Boston is likely to start considering higher linkage fees as well.  This is important, as we need to raise expectations for affordable and middle income housing when and where a market is hot.  One can reasonably argue about the “right” level of these requirements—cities and advocates need to be realistic and remember that other goals (e.g., creating great public spaces) may also require developer concessions.

In the debate over housing costs, we have to remember that the current crisis is fundamentally because Greater Boston has significantly underbuilt multi-family housing since 1990.  Effective rents have generally risen since then, turning us into one of the highest-cost metro areas in the country.  That’s why Governor Patrick and Mayor Walsh both set ambitious housing production goals.

Large-scale development can also be a scary thing, and nothing triggers that more than abstract debates about building height or massive amounts of square footage.  (The Cambridge Planning Board has discussed the possibility of a signature 500 foot tower and a city councilor has talked about 1,000 feet.) Reasonable people can differ about exactly how much, but if you can’t have significant density in places like Kendall Square where can you do that?  In our view, the debate should center more about making a walkable, vibrant neighborhood.  That includes the mix between housing, office and retail/restaurants; public spaces; traffic and parking management; promoting small retail uses; design that enhances a lively street; more investment in transportation infrastructure; and public/private district management to help create and sustain the new “community.”

The fear and anger are out there for a reason.  Part of the challenge when there are such big opportunities is building a true community vision about the mix of incomes and the density necessary.

Somerville Reforms Zoning and Massachusetts Can Too

In his Boston Globe column today, Paul McMorrow praises the updated and “sane” zoning laws the city of Somerville is set to roll out. The new laws will make it easier for everyday citizens to make modest changes to the triple-decker homes that have been emblematic of Somerville for generations. Somerville Director of Planning George Proakis tells McMorrow, “In residential neighborhoods, it’s a lower threshold to build a new eight-unit building than it is to finish a basement.” Our Great Neighborhoods team has supported the efforts of community partners like Somerville Community Corporation to participate in reforming zoning in Somerville and we applaud the Boston Globe for drawing attention to this important issue.

Somerville’s zoning laws are 20 years old. But our state’s zoning laws have gone nearly twice as long without substantive changes. In most areas of the Commonwealth, it’s easier to build a sprawling subdivision than it is to build vibrant, walkable communities like the much-lauded Assembly Square that McMorrow mentions in his column. That’s why we’re advocating for Zoning Reform legislation at the state level.

An Act Promoting the Planning and Development of Sustainable Communities” (House Bill 1859) will modernize and streamline the zoning and permitting process across the Commonwealth. It also creates incentives for communities to plan ahead for growth in a way that will attract and retain the residents who will keep Massachusetts thriving for years to come. Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has voiced his support for this bill, writing, “All of our communities could do much more with a strategic reform to our state’s development laws.”

Somerville didn’t wait for new investment, housing, and jobs to fall out of the sky. The City and its citizen activists embarked on a hard-fought course of smart planning and zoning years ago. But you can make it easier for cities and towns throughout the state to get better neighborhoods by passing House Bill 4065 right now. Learn more and email your legislators to voice your support for sensible reform.