New Housing in Old Neighborhoods

This article appears in CommonWealth Magazine.

Greater Boston has added hundreds of thousands of new jobs, and not nearly enough housing. Where should new housing go, to accommodate so many people?

To understand our region’s current answer, I have pored over local zoning codes, housing plans, and permitting data in 100 cities and towns of Greater Boston, not including the City of Boston itself. On the weekends, I have been touring Greater Boston.

Cities and towns have been allowing housing construction in certain historic centers, industrial properties, office parks, and commercial corridors. These areas, put together, make up a small portion of Greater Boston. Most of the region is zoned residential, and built residential. In general, the local plans do not recommend adding multi-family housing to residential districts.

In theory, we can meet demand for new housing by building high rises on a small area of land, in centers and peripheries of municipalities, outside of the vast network of residential roads. Indeed, we should be allowing even more housing in our centers and planning for vibrant, connected, diverse hubs on the peripheries.

But, the region should offer not only high rises and single family houses, but also two-families, three-families, townhouses, cottages on shared lots (cottage courts, as condos or rentals), accessory dwelling units in single family houses, and small-scale low-rise apartment or condo buildings. Choice is good. To meet any substantial portion of demand with small-scale in-fill, the zoning for it would need to cover a significant amount of land — including in some existing residential neighborhoods.

Politically, adding housing to existing neighborhoods is the hardest thing. Wayland’s 2016 Housing Production Plan concludes: “Within existing residential neighborhoods, new multi-family housing is generally not recommended because of concerns that it would alter the single-family character of most of Wayland’s neighborhoods.” And Burlington’s 2017 draft master plan explains: “For any comprehensive housing policy to work in Burlington, it must begin with protecting the town’s single-family neighborhoods from unwanted encroachment by other land uses. There is considerable tension in Burlington about housing growth, especially multifamily housing, and has been obvious throughout the master plan process.” Similar sentiments are expressed in many plans.

There are ways for municipalities to allow more housing in residential districts while maintaining the current built character. To this end, municipalities could allow in residential districts:

· Conversion of historic houses to multi-family housing, contingent on preservation of the historic house. New townhouses or cottages could be permitted in the rear of the main house. Such zoning avoids teardowns and promotes historic preservation.

· Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in owner-occupied single family houses. Zoning for ADUs typically specifies that the house must continue looking like a single family house after addition of the secondary dwelling unit.

· Cottage courts, which are small single family houses arranged on a single lot. The regulations can specify that parking be situated in the rear of the lot, out of public sight.

· Open space residential design. Most municipalities do have provisions for flexible zoning for projects that involve more than a few dwelling units, but many of the provisions are written in ways that make their use rare. In some versions, all of the housing must be single family houses, but in others, the housing can be in multi-family arrangements, as duplexes and townhouses. The flexibility can yield better site designs than strict dimensional requirements that relate to each dwelling unit.

Some municipalities are experimenting with design standards for new construction in residential neighborhoods, although most local design standards apply to mixed-use centers, particularly historic downtowns. Standards for residential neighborhoods can specify that new buildings must have a street-facing prominent front door, for example, and garage doors oriented away from the street view.

Progress in reforming local zoning bylaws and ordinances has been slow, both for the political opposition to increased density and also for limited capacity at the local level to usher reforms through the legislative processes of town meetings and city councils. For decades now, most municipal plans have been recommending for municipalities to allow ADUs; so far only 37 out of 100 cities and towns in Greater Boston allow for ADUs to be put in and rented out — and typically with significant restrictions on the houses that could qualify for gaining an ADU. Planning boards have multiple priorities to address; ADUs can wait on to-do lists for years, while the planning board deliberates new zoning for the downtown and re-writes provisions for including affordable housing in new subdivisions, for example.

Widespread reform at the local level on the full agenda would take many decades, at the current rate of reform. To address the housing crisis, state-level reform is needed:

· Adopt the Governor’s Housing Choice legislation to change the threshold for approving certain zoning changes from two-thirds to a majority vote. Many proposals garner majority support but fail to reach the supermajority threshold.

· Authorize local planning boards to grant ‘option permits’ similar to ‘special permits’ for ADUs, conversions, cottage courts, and open space residential design, even where the local bylaw and ordinance does not have provisions for such developments. The decision-making about projects would remain local and discretionary, at the planning board, but the authority would be granted by the state legislature, instead of from town meeting or city council. We should not have to wait for every city and town to adopt ADU zoning to allow homeowners to add ADUs across the region, for example.

Arlington’s 2015 Master Plan states: “Residents seem concerned that additional development will be out of scale or character with the qualities they value in their community.” Their concern is not unique in the region. Greater Boston needs more housing, and there are ways for us to allow it and see it built — for the benefit of Greater Boston’s character. Municipalities and the state should both act, to make growth a blessing in our charming neighborhoods.

Beverly
Braintree
Newton
Cambridge
Arlington

Public policy research: housing and land use, data use in public management, and environmental issues. Greater Boston. Instagram, Twitter: @amydain