Greater Boston’s plan for multi-family housing

People say that Greater Boston lacks a plan for growth in housing, because zoning is controlled at the local level, not by the state or a regional authority. That is basically true.

But, Greater Boston does have a de facto plan for growth that covers the whole region. It is just remarkably complicated and inaccessible — and inadequate.

The current plan is the aggregation of all of the zoning bylaws and ordinances for all of the cities and towns, combined with all of the master plans and housing productions plans that individual cities and towns have created. Zoning, after all, is a plan for managing growth in a municipality. It addresses the questions: Where can housing be built in a municipality? How do we make decisions about specific projects?

Greater Boston has been caught unprepared for its success and growth — unprepared to provide enough housing, handle the traffic, and minimize emissions. It is projected that the region needs hundreds of thousands of new dwelling units to meet demand. To puzzle together our plan for growth in multi-family housing, I reviewed the zoning and local plans for 100 cities and towns in Greater Boston, not including Boston itself.

Here are the four basic tenets of our de facto regional zoning plan for managing growth in multi-family housing:

De Facto Tenet #1: Allow multi-family housing development on very little land in the region.

In theory, land area is not a critical constraint to multi-family housing development, as we can build upward to meet demand — gaining many units on little land area. In practice, the cities and towns highly restrict building density as well as land area. There has been little interest in adding housing to existing residential districts, and most of the region has been developed with residences. Current restrictions are preventing the market from providing enough housing.

De Facto Tenet #2: Allow incremental development in historic commercial centers, and more on the municipal peripheries.

Most municipalities have up-zoned historic centers for more housing, and approximately half of them have permitted projects in the centers in the last two decades. Up-zoning is a strategy to keep a center vital in the age of on-line shopping. Centers offer residents abundant benefits like walkability, access to public transportation, and opportunities to be social. Typically, municipalities add tens of units to the centers, although several cities have added hundreds. On the municipal peripheries, especially on isolated parcels fenced in between highways, tracks, and water, municipalities permit larger projects.

De Facto Tenet #3: Make local decision-making about projects discretionary, political, and ad hoc.

Project-by-project negotiation can yield good outcomes, and flexibility is needed to guide a dynamic market. But also, the system is time consuming, costly, and unpredictable. It is hard to make long-term infrastructure investments when housing decisions are ad hoc.

De Facto Tenet #4: Link new housing development to new commercial development.

Mixed use neighborhoods make for lively, interesting, walkable places. Commercial development also benefits municipal tax bases. This is a big area of accomplishment; 83 municipalities have adopted mixed use zoning, and many projects have been permitted with it. As the market for new commercial space wanes, though, requiring first-floor commercial space in residential buildings, or zoning for multi-family housing only in connection with new lifestyle shopping centers, can hinder the development of housing.

To house Greater Boston’s people, we need to allow dense development in a small land area, and incrementally denser development in a larger land area. We can allow much more housing in our historic centers and shopping malls, and a little more housing in walking distance of them. We should make better plans for the large scale building at municipal edges so that we are gaining walkable, vibrant, diverse hubs that are well connected to other places. We should reform our decision-making systems to retain the benefits of flexibility, negotiation, and local control while improving the systems’ speed and predictability.

At stake is housing affordability, the economy, the environment, and also the character of Greater Boston. Our current plan is a paper wall of regulation. We can make a better plan for Greater Boston’s growth.

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

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