A photo of a new apartment building under construction in Boston.
A new apartment building under construction in Boston, where multi-family housing hasn't kept up with demand. Photo courtesy Anthony Flint

Despite the area’s progressive politics, NIMBY-minded residents in and around Boston are skilled in keeping residential construction at bay.

Many Massachusetts cities and towns are using zoning to block new multi-family housing as enthusiastically as anyplace in equally blue California. The Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance recently released the results of their two-year research project into how well the Boston area was faring in its efforts to keep up with housing demand. “The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston” finds that that communities in the Commonwealth effectively erected a “paper wall” of zoning restrictions to discourage development.

“The local zoning approval processes for multifamily housing have been evolving to be more flexible, political, ad hoc, unpredictable, time consuming, and discretionary,” reads the study, by researcher Amy Dain of the nonprofit policy center MassINC, of bylaws, ordinances, and plans of 100 cities and towns around Boston. “The current processes are unlikely to yield enough housing in the coming years.”

Like many other metros nationwide, Boston’s housing production lags far behind what is needed to keep housing costs reasonable. From 2010 to 2017, Greater Boston added 245,000 new jobs, but only permitted 71,600 new homes. As a result, the Smart Growth Alliance says, one quarter of all renters in Massachusetts now spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing. Housing costs in the Commonwealth continue to rise faster than New York or California.

Some key takeaways from the report:

  • Little land zoned for multi-family. For the most part, local zoning laws keep 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. At least a third of the municipalities have no practical multi-family zoning that can accommodate growth.
  • Lots of ad-hoc 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. Instead, the research documents cities and towns moving away from predictable zoning districts and toward “floating districts,” project-by-project decision-making, and special permits and variances. There also seems to be a trend toward politicizing development decisions by shifting special permit granting authority to city council and town meetings, emphasizing ad hoc negotiation and stretching out the process.
  • What little is built is relegated to the outskirts. About half of the communities in the region have permitted some housing units in their historic centers, but Dain’s case studies show that these infill projects are modest in scale and can take up to 15 years to plan and permit. Many more homes are getting built in less-developed areas, such as converted industrial properties, office parks, and other parcels isolated by highways, train tracks, waterways, or other barriers. Even if built densely, this type of housing often ends up being car-dependent because of limited access to public transportation and poor walkability.

So what gives? One might think that Massachusetts, known as an exemplar of progressive values (not to mention breeding ground for Democratic presidential candidates), should have a better record on sheltering its residents. The Smart Growth Alliance concludes otherwise:

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.

Not that there haven’t been good efforts. The last three governors—Mitt Romney, Deval Patrick, and now Charlie Baker—have all pleaded for more multifamily construction. For more than a decade, the state has offered cash money for municipalities that allow dense, compact development in smart locations, like town centers or near transit. There are millions on the table, for the cities and towns to use however they like—plus a separate funding stream just for schools, designed to address a common complaint by established residents, that the local school system can’t handle more students.

Add to those carrots the stick of Chapter 40B, a 50-year-old state program that fast-tracks affordable housing in communities where less than 10 percent of the overall stock is affordable to those making 80 percent of area median income. Several Massachusetts communities also have inclusionary housing ordinances, requiring that a portion of new residential development is affordable. A density bonus program beefs up affordability requirements even further, based on the principle that expanded allowable density increases value for private landowners and developers. And some cities and towns across the state are pursuing policies that increase the supply of affordable housing, such as legalizing accessible dwelling units, promoting community land trusts, and allowing tiny houses and manufactured homes.

But all of those efforts haven’t moved the needle adequately, not least because some places are engaged in the work of building more housing, and some aren’t. Specifically, in mostly suburban communities, resistance to multi-family housing is fierce. They ignore the state’s aforementioned offer of cash, masterfully use local zoning as a cudgel, and fight 40B projects with a special vengeance.

The Bay Area has lately dominated the urbanist conversation about the Not-In-My-Backyard phenomenon, which in turn has stirred the antecedent YIMBY movement (Yes In My Backyard). But the Bay State’s NIMBYs are at least their equal, deploying the familiar concerns about schools, traffic, parking, and the “character” of existing neighborhoods with a ruthless effectiveness.

YIMBYism may yet get purchase here, but it’s been rough going. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker proposed his Housing Choices legislation, allowing cities and towns to cut down on bureaucracy by making zoning changes by a simple majority vote of the city council or town meeting, rather than the current required two-thirds supermajority. But even that modest tweak of the rules of the game has gone nowhere. The bill withered in the state legislature last year, and was refiled earlier this year with a provision to make it even more modest: allowing a simple majority vote on projects near transit or commercial centers that also are at least 10 percent affordable. Change the two-thirds majority requirement at town meetings? Nothing doing.

The battle over Baker’s bill had echoes of California’s struggle over SB50, the legislation that would fast-track density at transit centers. That much-talked-about bill was recently derailed, with NIMBYs and advocates for low-income neighborhoods teaming up to raise concerns that increasing the supply of housing triggers gentrification and displacement.

All this leaves those trying to respond to the housing crisis to just keep chipping away.

“Communities in Massachusetts love to be involved with development decisions, and that’s not going to change,” says Andre Leroux, executive director of the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, which provides tools, technical assistance, and guidance for pro-housing advocates.

But some things are changing. “What’s different from 10 or even 5 years ago is that a growing number of residents are willing to take on the NIMBYs,” he adds. “They need help finding each other, and then they need some data and communications training to be effective.”

Around here, incremental progress right now seems the best anyone can hope for, even as other regions are being more bold. We may be be, as the New York Times recently declared, in the midst of a national reckoning with the costly legacy of single-family zoning. In December, Minneapolis banned it, opening up different areas for multifamily housing and accessory dwelling units. Denver, Seattle, and Vancouver are all seeking greater affordability requirements in neighborhoods where zoning has been changed to allow greater height and density, since that kind of “upzoning” increases value for private landowners and developers.

Other measures are tougher and more penalty-oriented. Vacant property and empty homes taxes have been tested or proposed in Oakland, D.C., Vancouver, and most recently Los Angeles. Boston’s city council has proposed a special real estate transaction fee for luxury homes over $2 million. California Governor Gavin Newsom, once mayor of San Francisco, seeks to punish communities that block home building by cutting off state funding.

And tougher still: In an interview for the Land Matters podcast, housing advocate Randy Shaw of San Francisco, author of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets To Live in the New Urban America, railed against NIMBYs in San Francisco who have all but dedicated their lives to keeping additional housing out of their rarefied neighborhoods, to keep their property values artificially high. “These are mostly Boomers who are sitting in single-family houses in Noe Valley that increase in value by $60,000 a year,” he told me. There should be a way to penalize these folks for their illicit gains, Shaw suggested—a little bit fancifully—especially because their resistance makes housing ruinously expensive for everybody else.

Such measures might seem extreme, but it reminds me of the adage about busting through a wall when there’s a door right there. Whether East Coast, West Coast, or in between, it would be a lot simpler if cities and towns just did the right thing and ushered in a range of housing options in their midst.

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