From the Beacon, October 2019

For nearly two years, the MMA and local officials from across Massachusetts have been calling for passage of An Act to Promote Housing Choices, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker and supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders and leaders.

The bill offers a meaningful path forward to build more housing and address the development needs that come with a growing economy, and it is far superior to previous legislative proposals that would override local zoning and impose unworkable one-size-fits-all mandates on communities.

With less than two months to go before the end of the fall legislative session, time is of the essence. It is critically important that the bill pass before formal sessions end on Nov. 20.

If the Legislature’s timeline for enactment slips into 2020, most communities will lose an entire year before they could enact local zoning changes to spur sustainable and effective housing production. That’s because we’d miss an entire cycle of town meetings, and the earliest that these communities could vote on new zoning articles would be in the spring or fall of 2021. If the bill passes before the end of 2019, communities would be able to take action a full year earlier.

The Act to Promote Housing Choices would accelerate housing production to address the housing challenges currently facing the Commonwealth. We applaud the administration for recognizing that true progress in making housing more affordable can only be achieved when the state and its cities and towns work together as partners, and local decision-making is respected.

The bill would make it easier for communities to enact local zoning changes that encourage housing development, by allowing housing-related zoning amendments and special permits to be approved by a simple majority of the local body, rather than the two-thirds supermajority currently required by state law. The measure would provide municipalities with the ability to increase higher-density housing production, while ensuring that the new developments match community and neighborhood needs.

The majority-vote change would only apply to nine specific housing-related zoning categories (see related story, page 11). All other aspects of zoning would not be affected, and amendments would still require a supermajority vote.

The nine aspects of zoning that the Act to Promote Housing Choices covers are:
1. Reducing residential dimensional requirements, such as setbacks, lot sizes or building height
2. Reducing required residential parking ratios
3. Creating mixed-use zoning in town centers, and creating multifamily and “starter” home zoning in town centers, near transit and other “smart growth” locations
4. Adopting “Natural Resource Protection Zoning” and “Open Space Residential Development” by right
5. Adopting provisions for transfer of development rights
6. Adopting 40R Smart Growth or Starter Home zoning overlay districts
7. Allowing accessory dwelling units or “in-law” units by right
8. Allowing for increased density through a special permit process promoting more flexible development
9. In cases where communities already allow transit-oriented, multifamily and mixed-use projects by special permit, allowing projects with at least 10% affordable units

Passage of any one of these zoning proposals would still require a majority vote of the local legislative body, and thus home rule and local decision-making would remain intact.

The MMA has steadfastly guarded against and opposed any and all proposals that would impose “by-right” or other language to override zoning bylaws. Local zoning codes have been established by citizens and their elected and appointed leaders, and should only be amended by cities and towns themselves. The Act to Promote Housing Choices, which was endorsed by the Joint Committee on Housing last session, rightly rejects a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach.

The MMA Board of Directors unanimously endorsed this legislation last session and joined a diverse coalition of groups responsible for building housing – including the Greater Boston Real Estate Board, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, and NAIOP/The Commercial Real Estate Development Association – to support the bill.

This broad coalition is asking that this bill be enacted without any divisive or weakening amendments that would impose state-set zoning standards, override local decision-making, or create new avenues for costly and unnecessary litigation.

Ever since Massachusetts was founded, zoning decisions have been determined by the residents of our communities – by the citizens and voters. Local officials may propose changes, but these proposals must receive the approval of the residents. In the vast majority of cases, these decision-makers are volunteers, regular citizens attending a town meeting who receive no pay or stipend, or volunteers elected as councillors who spend hundreds of hours a year making decisions that affect neighborhoods across their communities.

Of our 351 cities and towns, a whopping 259 hold open town meetings, which means that all registered voters serve as the local legislative body that sets zoning. Another 33 communities have representative town meetings, where about 200 local volunteers are elected to serve as the legislative authority. In total, 292 communities, or 83 percent of our municipalities, have a town meeting form of government, where zoning is established directly by the citizens. Of the remaining 59 localities, all but two have volunteer citizen-councillors who are elected to serve as the legislative and zoning authority. Every town has an all-volunteer planning board.

The role of citizens in this process is essential because Massachusetts knows that one size does not fit all. Sustainable development depends on a localized approach that allows for growth that fits and works. And new laws won’t work if they strip average citizens of their role and voice, which is why the Act to Promote Housing Choices is so effective. By reducing the approval vote to a majority, the bill would bring powerful and meaningful change that would facilitate zoning changes for the production of housing. By preserving the role of the people, the bill would maintain hometown democracy and ensure that citizens retain their voice.

Because of today’s supermajority threshold, the vote of citizens who oppose change is twice as powerful as the vote of citizens who support new approaches or local amendments. This imbalance has created stalemates in many cities and towns throughout Massachusetts, where a clear majority wants to adjust zoning provisions, but the two-thirds hurdle is too high to overcome. The Act to Promote Housing Choices would simply give all citizens the same voice in these local policy decisions.

This bill offers a meaningful partnership with cities and towns, and if enacted, it would be the most significant zoning reform measure in the past 50 years. It may seem modest in its means, yet it would be bold in its impact.

The MMA strongly supports this bill as written, and is asking the Legislature to enact it without amendments that could unravel this opportunity to achieve progress – an opportunity that is made possible by this state-local partnership framework.

We don’t need or want the state to take power away from the citizens of Massachusetts, and we don’t need or want the state to override citizen-set zoning frameworks. What we do need and want is a partnership that creates a level pathway for citizens and their local officials to adjust their zoning provisions – as they see fit – to generate housing growth that is localized and sustainable.

Cities and towns across Massachusetts are pioneering innovative and bold approaches to housing issues. We need and want the partnership framework that the Act to Promote Housing Choices offers, so that our communities can build on that success and address the housing challenges that Massachusetts is facing.

That’s why passage before Nov. 20 is so important.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO