The Good News About Milton

Written by AHMA Regional Organizer Joyce Mandell

The big news last week in local and even national pro housing circles centered on the outcome of the Milton referendum vote on February 14, 2024.  Milton voters narrowly voted 5115 to 4346 to defeat the town meeting approved zoning plan to comply with the 2021 MBTA Communities Law.  Milton had now become the only one of 12 rapid transit communities to be fully non-compliant with the state zoning law.  All other 11 rapid transit communities have submitted compliance zoning plans to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities. Our pro housing hearts were somewhat broken as we heard the election results of this Valentines Day vote. 

I woke up on the morning of Thursday, February 15 to a plethora of emails and texts with post-valentine heart emojis, check-ins and condolences.  Even my daughter living in Maryland called to console me after she heard about the referendum loss in Milton on a Boston sub-reddit.  Since April 2023, I have served as the AHMA regional organizer for Milton to boost pro housing advocacy in support of Milton’s 3A compliance.   I was on the slack listening as the precincts were called in real time and had that visceral let-down as we all realized that after all the hard work, we had lost this one. Immersed as I was in Milton, this defeat felt personal and real.  

The minute I heard the Milton election outcome, I felt despair as did all the amazing advocates who worked so hard and tirelessly in Milton.  We deserved a night and day to feel sad, a natural reaction after such a loss.  However, fairly soon, I moved from despair to general happiness and even, I dare say, joy!  Please know that I am not a Pollyanna type.  I’m often prone to pessimism but I just found that there was so much more to celebrate about Milton that I want to share with you now.  Here are five reasons to rejoice (and not mourn) what happened in Milton:

Milton overwhelmingly approved the compliant zoning warrants at town meeting in December 2023. If you had asked me five months before the December town meeting vote, I would have guessed that zoning would not have passed at Town Meeting.  All odds were against our side. Milton has a deep history of exclusionary zoning. The opposition was successful in pushing local leaders to protest Milton being designated as a “rapid transit” community and was disseminating misinformation through social media channels.  The planning board did not take responsibility for shaping a compliant zoning article.  I was struggling to get pro housing advocates just to meet and shape a campaign strategy.  Could we ramp up a full campaign in just four months?  Despite a late start, a small group of advocates spearheaded an extensive education and outreach strategy in August to target town meeting members by identifying town meeting supporters and providing factual information through mailers and an FAQ on the Affordable Inclusive Milton (AIM) website.  Additionally, we were able to organize regular letters to the editor and numerous public speakers in support of the zoning warrant articles at the planning board and select board hearings.  After two late evenings and over seven hours of bitter debate, the work paid off in an overwhelming victory at town meeting.   Warrant articles 1 and 2 overwhelmingly passed with more than ⅔ of the total votes!  That vote in itself was a huge victory to celebrate!

The Yes For Milton campaign was one of the most organized, well-run and robust campaigns I have ever seen. Despite the victory at town meeting, the opposition quickly collected more than 3000 signatures to put the zoning up to a town-wide referendum vote in February less than two months away.  In less than two months, the Yes For Milton campaign built a vast infrastructure composed of subcommittees tasked with everything from fundraising, messaging, social media management to data tracking, canvassing and outreach.  More than twenty leaders met weekly to strategize and build the campaign.  Milton residents raised almost $20,000 for the campaign, posted hundreds of yard signs, sent out several mailers to voters, gathered testimonials from supporters, and built a robust website  Through all this work, the campaign accomplished its stated goal to get at least 4000 yes voters to the polls!

Abundant Housing Massachusetts built a deep, trusting and lasting bond with Milton pro housing advocates. AHMA played a key role in this campaign by offering the use of the voter files and access to minivan in order to carve out turfs for weekly canvassing. Consequently, over a hundred canvassers talked “zoning” with over 4000 voters.  Additionally, AHMA set up and led three textbanks reaching out to more than 10,000 voters to go out and vote. AHMA coordinated with the Milton data team to input and analyze the results of all canvasses and textbanking.  In our intensive work and central role in this short campaign and in all the groundwork I had done since April 2023, we have developed a collaborative and cooperative relationship that we expect will continue to grow moving forward.  We are also thrilled to welcome Affordable Inclusive Milton as one of our affiliate groups in our AHMA network.  

The campaign activated an organized and mobilized pro housing/zoning superforce that will move Milton forward in the future. This campaign was on fire. I predict that the energy generated in the campaign will propel this group forward in the work of pro-housing and pro-zoning change in Milton.  What was amazing to see was the sense of community and camaraderie that evolved over such a short period of time.  Advocates were having fun, meeting regularly, sometimes daily in each other’s homes and celebrating/ consoling each other together. I believe that there is nothing this group can not accomplish going forward.  Aren’t the strong bonds we build together in such intense work something to cherish?

The State of Massachusetts now has a chance to demonstrate the consequences of non-compliance with the MBTA Communities Law.Although I do not want my Milton advocate friends to suffer, we now get to see a case study showing the strength of the state as well as the financial and reputational impact on a community that does not comply with state law.  Due to non-compliance, Milton is now no longer eligible for a $140,800 waterfront improvement grant the town was awarded to restore a seawall.  This is just the start of loss of state funds. Massachusetts Housing Secretary Ed Augustus informed Milton that “non-compliant status means the town will begin losing out on significant grant funding from the state, effective immediately.”  Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell has also been very clear about the legal repercussions of non-compliance, warning Milton that her office will be considering legal action against the town.  All eyes are still on Milton as other towns observe the state’s response and weigh the costs and consequences of non-compliance for their communities. 

It is natural to look at the final referendum vote and think simply, we lost. I’ve learned over time that life is way more complicated and nuanced to make such a final declaration. When I think back on the campaign in Milton and the work we have done for almost a year, I am proud, joyous and focused on the good news.”