News & Resources

The State of Zoning for Multi-family Housing in Greater Boston

How thousands of pages add up to a housing deficit

The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance is pleased to announce the release of “The State of Zoning for Multi-family Housing in Greater Boston,” the culmination of a two-year research project by Amy Dain of Dain Research that we commissioned in collaboration with MassHousing, Massachusetts Housing Partnership, Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), Massachusetts Association of Realtors, Homebuiders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).

See the report here.

You’ve heard study after study explain that housing production lags far behind what we need to keep our housing costs reasonable. From 2010 to 2017, Greater Boston added 245,000 new jobs but only permitted 71,600 new units of housing. As a result, one quarter of all renters in Massachusetts now spend more than 50% of their income on housing. Our housing costs continue to rise faster than New York or California.

But this is not another one of those studies. Over the last two years, researcher Amy Dain has systematically reviewed the bylaws, ordinances, and plans for the 100 cities and towns around Boston to uncover how local zoning affects multifamily housing and why we’re failing.

It’s an amazing piece of work.

Although it seems like we’re building more housing than ever before—and we are the fastest growing state in the Northeast—Massachusetts builds only half of the homes that we did each year in the 1970s when our economy was stagnant.

This comprehensive report answers important new questions:
Where can new housing be built around the region?
How do we make decisions about development projects?

What we have we done to get to this point, and what can we do about it?

Here are Amy’s four principal findings, along with her takeaways.

1) Very little land is zoned for multi-family housing.

For the most part, local zoning keeps new multi-family housing out of existing residential neighborhoods, which cover the majority of the region’s land area.

In addition, cities and towns highly restrict the density of land that is zoned for multi-family use via height limitations, setbacks, and dwelling units per acre. Many of the multi-family zones have already been built out to allowable densities, which mean that although multi-family housing is on the books, it does not exist in practice.

At least a third of the municipalities have virtually no multi-family zoning or plan for growth.

Takeaway: We need to allow concentrated density in multi-family zoning districts that are in sensible locations and allow for incremental growth over a larger area.

2) We are moving to a system of project-by-project decision-making.

Unlike much of the rest of the country, Massachusetts does not require communities to update their zoning on a regular basis and make it consistent with local plans. Although state law ostensibly requires municipalities to update their master plans every ten years, the state does not enforce this provision and most communities lack up-to-date plans.

Instead, the research documents a trend away from predictable zoning districts and toward “floating districts,” project-by-project decision-making, and discretionary permits. Dain found that 57% of multi-family units approved in the region from 2015-2017 were approved by special permit, 22% by 40B (including “friendly” 40B projects), 7% by use variance, and only 14% by “as-of-right” zoning.

There also seems to be a trend toward politicizing development decisions by shifting special permit granting authority to City Council and town meeting. The system emphasizes ad hoc negotiation, which in some cases can achieve a more beneficial project. Yet the overall outcome is a slower, more expensive development process that produces fewer units. Approving projects one by one inhibits the critical infrastructure planning and investments needed to support the growth of an entire district.

Takeaway: We would be better served by a system that retains the benefits of flexibility while offering more speed and predictability.

3) The most widespread trend in zoning for multi-family housing has been to adopt mixed-use zoning.

83 of out of 100 municipalities have adopted some form of mixed-use zoning, most in the last two decades. There is a growing understanding that many people, both old and young, prefer to live in vibrant downtowns, town centers and villages, where they can easily walk to some of the amenities that they want. Malls, plazas and retail areas are increasingly incorporating housing and becoming lifestyle centers.

Yet with few exceptions, the approach to allowing housing in these areas has been cautious and incremental. These projects are only meeting a small portion of the region’s need for housing and often take many years of planning to realize. In addition, the challenges facing the retail sector can make a successful mixed-use strategy problematic. Commercial development tends to meet less opposition than residential development, even in mixed-use areas.

Takeaway: We need more multi-family housing in and around mixed-use hubs, but not require every project to be mixed-use itself.

4) Despite their efforts, communities continue to build much more new housing on their outskirts rather than in their town centers and downtowns.

About half of the communities in the study permitted some infill housing units in their historic centers, but her case studies show that these infill projects are modest in scale and can take up to 15 years to plan and permit.

On the other hand, many more units are getting built in less-developed areas with fewer abutters. This includes conversion of former industrial properties, office parks, and other parcels disconnected from the rest of the community by highways, train tracks, waterways or other barriers. This much-needed housing can be isolated even when dense, and still car-dependent because of limited access to public transportation and lack of walkability.

As Amy Dain says, “We permit tens of units in the centers, and hundreds on peripheries.”

Takeaway: We need to allow more housing in historic centers as well as incremental growth around those centers. Furthermore, we need to plan an integrated approach to growth districts so that they can be better connected to the community and the region.

Thank you for reading! On the report webpage, you can find:
Amy Dain’s PowerPoint presentation and notes that tell the story of her findings
An 11 page Executive Summary
The full 123 page report
Last year’s report on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)