Senators should discuss zoning bill with local leaders before voting

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From The Beacon, June 2016

For more than a decade, the Legislature has been considering ways to modernize planning, zoning and other land-use statutes, but until now no significant legislation has advanced very far. Earlier this year, a legislative committee managed to report a sweeping zoning bill (S. 2144) to the Senate, where it is undergoing review by Senate leaders and may soon emerge for debate.
 
The provisions of S. 2144 reflect several years of discussions between legislators, advocates for land-use reform (mostly the regional planning agencies and “smart growth” organizations), municipal officials (including the MMA’s policy committees), and other interested parties. This bill is far more balanced than earlier versions, and, with some adjustments to tighten and clarify language, could provide meaningful and helpful changes. The MMA believes these remaining concerns can be addressed, and has offered detailed comments to Senate leadership.
 
Done well, comprehensive legislation would achieve two essential goals: strengthening the connection between planning and zoning, which would create an improved and more understandable development framework to address local needs; and empowering municipalities with important tools to increase access to affordable housing in their communities, which helps to attract and retain residents and jobs and build a vibrant economy.
 
One of the MMA’s top priorities is winning passage of local-option inclusionary zoning authority for cities and towns. This would give municipalities the power to require developers to include affordable housing as a component of new building projects, either on-site or off-site. This flexible tool would allow communities to address the shortage of affordable housing and would ensure that new developments do not price out current or future residents and families of modest means.
 
As debate on a bill nears, cities and towns are deeply concerned about the powerful influence of for-profit developers and the real estate industry, who strongly oppose some of the most basic reforms included in S. 2144, such as modernizing the “approval not required” (ANR) statute. These interests are fighting to defeat the more progressive and effective provisions in the bill, including the essential inclusionary zoning authority for cities and towns, which local leaders need to create more units of affordable housing.
 
The for-profit development industry is pushing hard to weaken the legislation, and is lobbying lawmakers to preempt local decision-making and override local zoning by mandating “as-of-right” authority for developers to eliminate any meaningful review at the local level.
 
Comprehensive changes to zoning and land-use laws in Massachusetts will have a profound and long-lasting impact on cities and towns, and the consequences will be felt for generations to come. That’s why, before they debate or vote, senators should meet and talk directly with their local officials to clearly outline what is in the legislation, discuss how it would impact each community in their district, and publicly explain where they stand on the various measures included in the bill.
 
Senators should pledge to oppose efforts to preempt local decision-making authority and undermine local planning efforts. This means that senators should oppose any “as-of-right” or “by-right” provisions. And senators should support new and realistic tools for cities and towns to address the important issues of affordable housing and environmental protection, including meaningful local-option inclusionary zoning authority and local development impact fees.
 
As the zoning bill has been moving through the process, for-profit developers have been lobbying furiously to attach another bill, H. 4140, as part of their campaign to override local zoning and mandate that every community in Massachusetts create “as-of-right” zoning districts to allow developers to construct cluster or multi-unit housing with no input or meaningful review by communities.
 
The real estate and development lobbyists have shrewdly framed their gambit as a solution to the shortage of affordable housing, but in fact the legislation would do the opposite – drive up the cost of housing. H. 4140 has no affordable housing provisions, and developers are pushing the bill because it would allow them to construct high-end, high-profit housing with no restrictions or consideration for affordability. Driven by the profit motive, developers are understandably interested in overriding local zoning to maximize their wealth, but the end result would be harmful to working class and middle class families, especially in the more populated and job-rich areas of Massachusetts, because the cost of housing would go up significantly.
 
H. 4140 would simply grant additional rights to developers without addressing many of the factors that have led to the scarcity of affordable housing in the Commonwealth. There are no provisions that would require or increase the amount of affordable housing in municipalities. Rather, we predict that H. 4140 would actually raise the overall cost of housing, as developers, motivated by profit, would focus on high-end housing – exactly what we have been seeing in Massachusetts over the past several years.
 
H. 4140 would also give the Department of Housing and Community Development approval authority over local multi-family zoning districts and allow the agency to develop and impose further bureaucratic requirements on cities and towns. This is highly inadvisable, as state agency control has the potential to politicize zoning policy and impose one-size-fits-all standards on communities, ignoring the diverse nature of localities across the Commonwealth.
 
Massachusetts needs to increase the supply of affordable housing, but very little in H. 4140 would actually lead to affordable housing. Senators should reject H. 4140, and instead embrace the local inclusionary zoning authority in S. 2144 as a much more effective tool to address affordable housing needs.
 
Each community has different needs and different challenges, which is why senators, and all members of the Legislature, should be explaining and discussing this issue with local officials in great detail.
 
Done well, zoning reform could help cities and towns manage sustainable growth more effectively and promote a variety of solutions to our housing needs. That would be a great outcome.
 
Done poorly, zoning legislation could hand developers big profits and drive up the cost of housing. That would be a shame.