AHMA Comments to DHCD Draft Guidelines for Required Multifamily Zoning in MBTA Communities

I am writing on behalf of Abundant Housing MA (AHMA), a statewide coalition of grassroots pro-housing advocates working to build open and welcoming communities across our Commonwealth.

AHMA is broadly supportive of DHCD’s’ draft guidelines for compliance with the multi-family zoning requirements of new Section 3A of M.G.L. c. 40A. These draft guidelines are a critical starting point for the important planning conversation that 175 impacted communities across the Greater Boston region must initiate soon. AHMA encourages DHCD to avoid watering down any final draft in response to comments seeking to retain more “local control.” DHCD has provided adequate flexibility to communities in terms of density, sizing, and location of zoning districts in compliance with the Section 3A law.

In recognition that every town has a role to play in addressing our housing crisis, AHMA appreciates that the DHCD’s draft guidelines set ambitious, town-by-town zoned capacity targets. For too long, the task of building the homes demanded by Greater Boston’s growing population has fallen to a handful of cities. The establishment of clear targets for each community is a recognition of the shared responsibility to build more open and welcoming neighborhoods across the region.

In addition, DHCD takes a rational approach in ratcheting down the zoned capacity for communities according to the type of transit service available, and concentrating that development near public transportation stations where available. Focusing new housing around public transportation helps ensure a sustainable future for communities and their residents by allowing greater freedom of choice to eliminate or reduce dependence on cars and fossil-fuel infrastructure. While every MBTA community has a role to play in meeting regional housing needs, it makes sense to direct the greatest potential for new units under the law towards the areas with the highest capacity of public transportation service.

AHMA encourages DHCD to consider the following items to further strengthen the final version of these guidelines:

  • By calculating each town’s target zoned capacity based on their existing unit count, communities that have built more homes in recent years are expected to do even more relative to other communities with comparable public transportation types. DHCD might consider recent past housing production in each community, and apply some additional multiplier to bring the zoned capacity target for these types of communities into balance.
  • DHCD should adopt standards to use when analyzing these new zoning districts for compliance, to ensure that any development produced in these zones is easily accessible to and from public transportation. It is not enough to require new housing to be near public transportation if that housing will be functionally inaccessible or not easily accessible for reasons such as highways or infrastructure.
  • This law and these guidelines will only work when the zoning districts are written to succeed. DHCD should state explicitly in the guidelines that the agency will consider zoning non-compliant with the law if it applies any unusual standards that effectively delay or discourage development in these districts.

AHMA is concerned with rhetoric we’ve heard recently from policy makers in some communities suggesting that their communities can afford to forgo compliance with the law. While the specific funding programs for which communities become ineligible if they do not comply are detailed in the Section 3A law, DHCD does include language at the end of draft guidelines maintaining that “DHCD may, in its discretion, take non-compliance into consideration when making other discretionary grant awards.” This is an important statement and we encourage DHCD, to the extent feasible under the law, to formally incorporate compliance with Section 3A into award criteria under other community development planning and funding programs it administers. Additionally, as the Section 3A law requires DHCD to consult with MassDOT to promulgate these guidelines, the agencies should develop standards by which compliance with Section 3A will be considered for discretionary funding programs administered by MassDOT.