Massachusetts State Senator Bruce Tarr came on Cape Ann Today to talk with Heather Atwood about the economic development bill passed by the State House in 2021. Part of the bill aimed to increase affordable housing around the state. Now, MBTA communities are required to develop at least one zoning district within a ½ mile of transit that legalizes multi-family housing construction.
Implementing the law has been confusing for some residents and developers. Senator Bruce Tarr explains some of the nuance of the law and talks about the future affordable housing in Massachusetts. Read the interview below.
Well, zoning seems to be on everybody’s mind these days. There was a state law passed last year that required a multifamily zoning areas around MBTA stations.
Senator Bruce Tarr:
So it was a component of an economic development bill, and part of that bill was to recognize the need for housing, as part of trying to grow our economy and maintain the economic strength that we already have. I don’t think anyone would argue that Massachusetts doesn’t have a shortage of housing and so we need to find ways to try to boost production.
This particular element of that bill suggested that if you are serviced by the MBTA, which are a great many communities in Eastern Massachusetts, then you have to create a zoning overlay, a specific area, and it has to be in close proximity to the MBTA. It has to allow for increased density, 15 units per acre, and it must allow multifamily housing by right. Now, that doesn’t mean that the housing would escape all scrutiny, but it means that you wouldn’t need a variance to get that type of housing.
Significantly, the bill itself, the provisions of the law, are very basic. They’re essentially what I just described, but the law has to be implemented and it’s implemented through regulation. The regulations that are out right now as a proposal are causing a lot of concern, and we’re hearing from lots of folks about that. For instance, there’s concern about just how close the housing has to be to the transportation facility. It may not be possible in some communities.
Other communities are suggesting that if they try to rezone to create this kind of housing, that it might not be able to be serviced by water and sewer utilities and things that are important to be able to construct housing. There’s a lot of concern that the regulations may be a little bit too much of a one-size-fits-all situation and maybe there needs to be some flexibility.
One of the important things, Heather, about the requirement that’s in statute and that’s then translated through the regulations, is that neither of them require the production of housing. They require the zoning to change to allow the production of housing. In my mind, a significant question exists as to whether, if we change the zoning, whether there will be developers that would be interested in building this type of housing in a particular area. So while I certainly understand the motivation here, I think this one deserves careful scrutiny, and I think it’s something we need to look at in terms of the regulations and whether they will work for every community, keeping in mind that we do need to increase our production of affordable housing stock.
Can you just explain a little bit more what you mean by the regulations will basically monitor the situation?
Senator Bruce Tarr:
The Department of Housing and Community Development is charged with developing the regulations to implement the law. So right now they’ve put forward a set of regulations and it’s very important to remember that those regulations are open to public comment. The public comment period, I believe ends on March 14th. If folks want more inform about that, they can reach out to us and we’d be happy to give them all the information they need to make public comment. But the regulations are the way that the law is carried out. So the law starts in a more generic way. The regulations seek to refine that in the law’s applicability to every community in the Commonwealth that’s affected by this.
I would point out that the penalty, if a community doesn’t comply with this is to be excluded from eligibility for some state funding programs, such as Mass Works and One Stop Grants and other kinds of things. So it isn’t an absolute requirement in the sense that a community could be sued and the state could seek some injunctive relief or some equitable remedy to force it to enact these regulations. The consequences, if you don’t have them, then you aren’t eligible for some fairly important state funding programs. But there’s a long way to go on this issue. I wouldn’t be surprised not only if we see a lot of public comment and a lot of suggestions for changing the regulations. I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see proposals to alter the law itself based on all the discussion that’s happening around the state.
These towns … it’s not like the Midwest where you have straight roads, and it’s going to be complicated, particularly around train stations where they’re usually very old communities.
Senator Bruce Tarr:
No, I would just say you’re right. And a lot of the neighborhoods near train stations are already built out. So changing the law may not create more units at all because many of the units that are in the zone may already comply because they may already be multifamily and there may already be high densities in those areas. So we’ve got a long way to go on this issue.