by Maya Hayao
In April 2023 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts released the latest revision of section 3A its zoning legislature, referred to as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) Communities Act. Section 3A was enacted as part of the January 2021 spending plan in order to encourage economic development and address concerns about housing. Accordingly, Newton and the other 176 MBTA communities anticipate an increase in the number of multi-family housing in their area as an effect of these revisions. Any community that fails to comply with the newly established set of regulations will be deprived of substantial state grant funding, notably, funding by the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Project Fund, and the Massworks infrastructure program.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is currently working with the MBTA and the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) to encourage the production of multi-family housing without a special permit across the 177 MBTA communities to make it easier to comply with the new zoning laws.
Communities subject to the new zoning laws, including Newton, must follow the guidelines established by the MBTA: multi-family dwellings are required to adhere to a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre as well as be constructed within a half-mile radius from a public transit stop.
Newton Zoning and Planning Committee board member and Ward 4 City Councilor Joshua Krintzman said that communities are required to construct different numbers of housing units based on the number of transportation points in their area.
“The act applies differently depending on how many bus and train stops you have,” he said. “What it means for Newton, specifically, is that Newton is required to create zoning that would allow for approximately 8300 new units of housing.”
Zoning and Planning Committee board member, City Council President, and Ward 2 Councilor-at-Large Susan S. Albright said the previously established zoning laws are what hold back towns from seeing economic and social developments.
“What happens is there’s a shortage of housing because communities, like Newton, all over the state have made restrictive zoning rules, which keep multifamily housing out of the suburbs,” she said. “This is what the MBTA Communities Act is addressing.”
Zoning and Planning Committee board member and Ward 1 City Councilor Alison Leary said the escalating housing costs and their potential implications for other aspects of Newton’s community are concerning.
“We’re now seeing housing prices go up, and this makes it really difficult for young families to move to Newton,” she said. “Newton’s getting older, and we are seeing our school population drop.”
Newton residents have mixed opinions surrounding the proposed changes to zoning laws, partly stemming from the fear of increased housing and population density.
While passing by houses in her neighborhood, Leary said that she has observed signs affixed to the front lawns of homes stating, “Save Our Villages.”
“I believe that most of those signs are put up by people who are concerned about too much density, too much change. And I think it’s based on fear and a lot of misinformation,” she said. “It’s really easy for people to just say no to something rather than taking the time to look into what exactly is zoning reform.”
Junior Alyssa Nguyen said that population density can be a serious concern and should be considered when building new developments.
“They need to be mindful of where they locate these housing developments and how they’re going to affect the surrounding community,” she said. “So many areas in Newton are already so busy and I don’t think they could handle more people.”
Senior Ethan Cheng said the potential increase in population density is inevitable and should not be something that troubles Newton residents.
“Eventually, we’re going to see some sort of population density increase,” he said, “It needs to be well accommodated with proper infrastructure plans and access to resources.”
Junior Harry Lee said the optimal way to stabilize the economy is by supporting existing zoning laws with other policies so that no particular group of people is impacted negatively.
“The ideal plan is to make our economy in a controllable state by implementing other policies and new multifamily and other zoning laws in order to balance side effects and key benefits so that no one is disadvantaged by these laws.”