by Benjamin Goldfarb
How can Massachusetts effectively change course to alleviate the affordable housing problem? According to Boston Pads, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Greater Boston is $3,158, nearly 25% higher than in December 2021 ($2,516). The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) estimates that 154,000 units are needed in Greater Boston by 2030 to maintain adequate housing for the region’s population. Still, in their annual Housing Report Card, the Boston Foundation reported Massachusetts ranks 41st nationally in housing permits issued in 2022.
In addition to escalating construction costs, developers of multifamily housing have been faced with another obstacle to getting projects built: Each of the state’s 351 municipalities has its own (usually restrictive) zoning ordinances and bylaws, with some exceptions (Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Watertown). Historically, very little land has been zoned for multifamily, and not enough “by right” zoning.
But thanks to the state’s and some municipalities’ legislation to create more affordable housing, there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel.
MBTA Communities Act
First is the MBTA Communities Act, the 2021 law that requires every MBTA community to have at least one zoning district near a transit station where multifamily housing is allowed as of right. Although some developers are skeptical that certain towns and cities will find ways to avoid full compliance necessary to allow for significant multifamily development, the law should spur suburban construction. A number of towns were continuing to procrastinate as the 12/31 deadline approached, but Governor Maura Healy reiterated in December that failure to comply would result in losing funding for schools, roads, and bridges as well as access to 13 programs and grants.
Affordable Homes Act
The second, and the one that has affordable housing proponents over the moon, is the proposed Affordable Homes Act, which if approved, will provide $4.1 billion in capital spending authorizations, substantive policy changes or initiatives, executive orders, and tax credits directed at reducing barriers to multifamily housing production and giving communities the resources to develop more housing.
In addition to these aforementioned acts, there has been an increase in the use of existing affordable housing tools like Chapter 40B. Suburbs such as Newton have approved several 40Bs in recent years; most recently the West Newton Armory project is set to transform into 43 100% affordable apartments. Nauset Construction is currently building two 40B projects: Stonegate St. Patrick in Natick, a mixed-use project that will deliver 46 apartments and 14,000sf of retail, and 1180 Boylston St. in Brookline, which will provide 50 luxury apartments, with 25% designated as affordable.
Municipalities are also providing incentives to encourage affordable development. In the last decade, Cambridge, where Nauset has constructed over a dozen multifamily projects, created the 100%-Affordable Housing Overlay (AHO), designed to help affordable housing developers create new, permanently affordable homes more quickly and cost-effectively.
If Massachusetts is to maintain its position as a global innovation leader, we need to address our affordable housing issue, and these programs are a step in the right direction.