175 ‘MBTA Communities’ will have to start increasing multi-family zoning this year

A year ago, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a new multi-family zoning requirement for the 175 communities serviced by or adjacent to MBTA public transportation. Now that the first draft of guidelines are here, advocates are celebrating the change — but warning that most municipalities will have to make changes to be in compliance.

“There’s going to be so much more zoning capacity for new homes in Massachusetts, which we really think is going to help people be able to live in the community of their choice,” said Eric Shupin of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.

The new draft guidelines, released just before the end of the year, specify that an MBTA community must have “at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right,” the policy states.

Timothy Reardon of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council estimated that only about a dozen communities, many of them in the dense inner ring near Boston, were already in compliance with these guidelines. He estimated that these zoning changes are the “appropriate scale to meet the next 10 to 15 years of demand,” he said, though he added that he’s already heard from some community leaders that they’re concerned constituents won’t be on board.

Specifically, the proposed policy stipulates that these zones have a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre, are no more than a half mile from an MBTA station in most cases, do not have age restrictions, and are suitable for families with children in the number and size of bedrooms, for example.

The zoning requirements would vary by the type of MBTA service available in that community. Communities with rapid transit need to have a minimum of 25% multi-family units as a percentage of total housing stock, while Commuter Rail communities need 15% multi-family units.

Boston would be exempt from this requirement, but next-door neighbor Cambridge would need to have 13,477 multi-family units out of 53,907 total, according to an online calculator from the state. Scituate, a less-urban community with Commuter Rail, would need 1,239 out of 8,260 total units.

Under the draft guidelines, communities must submit by the end of the year either a request to certify their existing infrastructure, or an “action plan” to get into compliance over the next few years.

“Just because the zoning might be in place, doesn’t mean that there’s going to be homes built there tomorrow, or that even homes will be built there at all,” Shupin, of CHAPA, said. “This only allows that zoning piece so it allows the opportunity for that.”

Stacy Thompson of the LivableStreets Alliance said the draft guidelines on the whole appear to do good, but she took issue with the fact that the plan doesn’t require a certain percentage of the units be affordable.

“(Baker’s) preference has clearly been focusing more on (increasing) housing stock and this belief that supply and demand will fix the affordability issue, which basically every housing expert across the country disagrees with,” she said.