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Final MBTA zoning guidelines major step forward for Commonwealth

Posted on August 11, 2022

By Clark Ziegler 

In January 2021 the Legislature approved and Governor Baker signed a new law that requires 175 cities and towns served by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to have at least one zoning district of “reasonable size”, within a half mile of transit stations whenever applicable,  in which construction of multifamily housing is allowed as of right at a density of at least 15 units per acre

The new law was necessary and important for several reasons:

  • Multifamily housing production in Massachusetts is chronically short of meeting market demand, due largely to local zoning restrictions that make multifamily development difficult or impossible.  That drives up housing costs and promotes greater racial and economic inequality.
  • Many of the most picturesque downtowns and most desirable neighborhoods in Massachusetts could no longer be built today because local zoning has become so much more restrictive than it was in the past.
  • Multifamily housing is significantly more cost-efficient and energy-efficient than single family homes
  • Building more homes in walkable locations, especially multifamily housing near transit and downtowns, is critical to reducing auto-dependence and meeting the state’s 2030 climate goals. Good planning that promotes mobility and a mix of uses creates vibrant, diverse, attractive neighborhood centers.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) sought input from a wide range of stakeholders and then published draft guidelines in December 2021 for public comment.  A basic principle underlying the draft guidelines is that cities and towns be divided into tiers so that multifamily zoning obligations are generally proportionate to the availability of transit service.

Another basic principle is that cities and towns have flexibility to place their multifamily districts in multiple locations so that they not only meet the requirement for proximity to transit stations (where applicable) but can also be sited in other smart locations that align with the community’s existing planning goals, such as downtowns and commercial centers.

The final guidelines reflect consideration of nearly four hundred public comments, and represent several significant improvements:

Closer alignment of housing requirements with rail lines, other transportation investments 

Communities are now grouped as rapid transit, commuter rail, adjacent communities or adjacent small towns to better reflect the availability of transit and the relative need for transit-oriented development.  The MBTA bus service community category proposed in the draft guidelines has been eliminated as a separate transit category in the final guidelines since service levels and transit utilization in those communities vary widely.

Tailored district location requirements to better reflect proximity & amount of land located near transit stations 

Instead of a one-size-fits-all requirement, the percentage of multifamily zoning districts that must be located within a half mile of transit will now vary on a sliding scale based on the stations located in or near each MBTA community and the amount of developable land around them.  A community with multiple transit stations may have to locate as much as 90% of its multifamily district(s) within a half mile of transit stations, while any community with fewer than 100 developable acres within a half mile of a station will be free to choose any appropriate location(s).

Reduced impact & extended compliance deadline for small & rural communities 

The multifamily zoning obligation for communities with a population of less than 7,000 or less than 500 residents per square mile is now capped at 5 percent of current housing stock.  Small/rural communities also have an extra year to comply with the new zoning requirement. 

Caps on minimum district land area & zoning capacity to eliminate disproportionate impacts 

The 50-acre minimum district size has been eliminated for small/rural communities and capped at 1.5 percent of land area for all other communities. The 50-acre minimum will be proportionately reduced as needed to ensure that the required multifamily zoning capacity never exceeds 25 percent of a community’s current housing stock.

Strong pathway for communities to require affordability

Communities may require that up to 10 percent of the units in MBTA multifamily zones be restricted to affordable prices and rents; up to 20 percent may be affordable in through approval as Chapter 40R smart growth districts or through state review and approval of pre-existing inclusionary zoning requirements. 

Greater clarity about local site plan review

The guidelines allow communities to utilize site plan review to reach agreement with developers on certain project details provided that the process does not unreasonably delay or impede development.

While some communities have a reduced multifamily zoning requirement under the final guidelines, other communities are now required to locate a much larger percentage of their multifamily districts within a half mile of transit.  There is also a much stronger emphasis on locating new housing in proximity to fixed transportation assets such as subway and rail stations and less emphasis on smaller towns without direct transit access.  The net effect of these changes is overwhelmingly positive and will create potential for nearly 300,000 multifamily housing units in the region.

This is a critically important state law and now it’s time to get it successfully implemented.  We’re excited about the potential and here to help with an array of resources at

(Clark Ziegler is executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership).

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