‘Incredibly powerful tool’: Phase-in of new state law to expand housing supply starts this month

An ambitious state law that has the goal of making it easier to build much-needed housing is about to reach its first major deadline.

It’s called the MBTA Communities Law.

The 177 communities that have some form of T service, either in their community or adjacent to it, are mandated to create zones to allow for multi-family housing to be built.

First up are the so-called Rapid Transit Communities. These are communities that are serviced by the Red, Green, Orange or Blue lines.

Braintree, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Quincy, Revere, and Somerville will all have to file plans with the state by the end of the month.

The plans need to outline zoning changes that will allow multi-family housing to be built by right by a developer proximate to public transportation.

“It’s an incredibly powerful tool to meet our goals for housing, transportation, sustainability, diversity, and inclusion,” said Lily Linke, MBTA Communities Engagement Manager for CHAPA, a Boston-based non-profit that advocates for affordable housing.

The goal is to make it easier to expand the region’s housing supply which will hopefully stabilize prices.

“Our goal is 200,000 new homes by 2030,” Linke said. “Even families earning a solid, good, middle-class income just can’t afford housing around here.”

Brookline is the first rapid transit community to approve a plan. They changed zoning regulations along Harvard Street to allow for taller residential buildings with first-floor retail options.

Finding consensus faced some delays in Newton.

“Housing in Newton, like other suburbs around Boston is expensive. It’s hard to find homes. It’s hard to find condos,” said David Micley, a city councilor-elect.

A plan focused on expanding housing in 13 Newton villages drew heated opposition, questioning if it was more ambitious than it needed to be.

The final plan focuses on adding zones to six neighborhoods.

“There certainly is a desire to keep the feeling of Newton being a suburb. Trees, green space. All the things that make us love Newton,” said Micley.

This was a big topic in Newton’s recent elections.

Micley, who supports some of the zoning changes, will be one of the new faces coming to the city council.

“I think the biggest areas of pushback, the biggest areas of concern, were just on high do we allow development to go by right.”

Supporters of the law say that eliminating “by right” development would take the teeth out of it and would leave communities and developers back where they started, still struggling to work around old zoning laws.

“It became clear that zoning is not the only step, but if you don’t take care of that step, we can’t get to any of the things afterward,” Linke said.

Planners in Lexington couldn’t agree more.

With just two bus lines running through the town, they had more time to develop a plan than the rapid transit communities. Still, they got their plan done way ahead of time.

“Housing had been top of mind in the community for a number of years,” explained Bob Peters, chair of the planning board.

Town planner Abby McCabe added, “We think that zoning is a good first step to keeping our employers, keeping our residents, having people grow up here and being able to stay and live here.”

The MBTA Communities law is primarily focused on increasing the supply of housing, particularly for families.

There are only minimal incentives to create many affordable units.

Commuter rail communities are next, having to file their plans by December 2024.

Penalties for non-compliance can lead to suspension of state grants for transportation and community development projects.

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