Measuring Consistency of Local Zoning

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					         Measuring Consistency of Local Zoning
         with State and Regional Housing Needs

Background

A legislative concept being considered by the Zoning Reform Task Force would grant cities and
towns additional zoning powers and greater zoning flexibility if they agree to make their zoning
consistent with a local comprehensive plan and consistent with state and regional planning
objectives. The following is an outline of state and regional housing standards that might be
established as a condition of certifying local plans and local zoning.

Basic principles

      Allow a reasonable rate of growth
      Build at smarter densities
      Prioritize development near jobs, transportation and other infrastructure
      Take into account what each community has already done

1% annual growth in housing stock is needed to sustain a viable state economy.

Barry Bluestone at Northeastern University estimates that 18,000 new housing units must be produced
each year in metropolitan Boston (a region consisting of the 147 cities and towns in Essex, Middlesex,
Norfolk, Plymouth and Suffolk Counties) to meet the region’s housing needs. This is the amount of
housing production needed to bring supply and demand into balance and restore housing vacancy rates
to a normal level. This analysis has been updated on an annual basis since 1998 as part of the Greater
Boston Housing Report Card published by the Boston Foundation.

Stated in another way, we need to build one new housing unit per year for every 233 residents or grow
our housing stock by 1% per year.

Edward Moscovitch of Cape Ann Economics performed a supply/demand analysis for the Massachusetts
Housing Partnership in 2005 as part of a project estimating the economic benefits of smart growth. He
estimated demand for new housing production for the 114 cities and towns in the Route 128/495
corridor at one unit per year for each 216 residents – nearly identical to Bluestone’s results.
Significant new housing production is needed regardless of the rate of population growth because older
housing becomes functionally obsolete and is not always located in proximity to jobs. A 1% housing
growth rate supports population growth of about 6/10ths of one percent, which is a fraction of the
national growth rate and matches conservative population projections used by the Metropolitan Area
Planning Council.

In order to achieve an overall housing growth rate of 1%, different growth rates make sense in different
parts of the Commonwealth based on job and population trends, infrastructure and other factors as
discussed further below.



Land consumption for new housing should average no more than a ½ acre per unit

Development of single-family homes on large lots has become the norm in Massachusetts. An MIT/MHP
analysis in 2006 found that average land consumption for new housing in eastern Massachusetts had
reached an acre per unit, even when including apartments, townhouses and other forms of multifamily
housing. Single family homes are now built on an average 1.3 acres per unit – the size of an NFL football
field. This development pattern is inconsistent with the neighborhood and village character of most
Massachusetts cities and towns and results in land consumption per unit that is three to four times
higher than states in the southern and western U.S.

Building new housing at an average of ½ acre or less would protect natural resources by reducing water
consumption and reducing groundwater contamination; allow significant tracts of undeveloped open
space and natural habitats to be preserved; reduce the cost of providing municipal services; increase
affordability by reducing development costs; and better respond to the needs of homebuyers who
generally prefer smaller lots. While a ¼ acre standard would achieve even greater public benefits – and
is achievable based on the experience of other regions – a ½ acre average per unit would still have
significant impact and is consistent with historical land use practices in virtually all Massachusetts cities
and towns.

While improved density has environmental and land-use benefits by itself, communities need to achieve
this overall state objective by allowing a range of housing types and not just by increasing the densities
allowed for detached single-family homes. Standards should be appropriately scaled in accordance with
community size and population density. In the largest communities a consistency test might require
that a minimum percentage of new growth consist of multifamily developments (5+ attached units). In
the smallest communities a consistency test might simply require that local zoning allow duplexes or
other small-scale attached housing units. Regardless of community size, local plans should allow higher
density housing development in reasonable proximity to infrastructure and public services and not
marginalize such development in remote locations.
Expectations for housing growth and housing density should be greater in cities and towns
with the closest proximity to jobs, transportation and infrastructure

While statewide housing goals are critically important in the aggregate, a “one size fits all” approach to
achieving those goals is inappropriate and unworkable. A new methodology developed by MIT’s Center
for Real Estate in 2005 provides an example of how housing goals might be equitably shared within each
region of the Commonwealth. MIT measured the number of jobs within reasonable commuting time
from each city and town in eastern Massachusetts, taking into account both the highway system and
public transportation. They found that jobs are most accessible in and around Boston (where all
communities in the top 20% of regional job access are located), generally declines beyond Route 128
and is lowest in communities along and beyond I-495 (where all communities in the bottom 20% are
located). Job distribution will follow different patterns in other regions such as central, western and
southeastern Massachusetts.

The minimum housing growth in each city and town needed to achieve consistency with state and
regional plans should be weighted up or down to reflect proximity to employment, including new
employment that results from transit extensions, major highway improvements and other public
investments. Similar adjustments should be made to reflect access to basic infrastructure such as water
and sewer capacity. While community housing goals should never be in conflict with state
environmental standards (such as Title 5 and sustainable water yields), towns should not have their
housing goals reduced simply because of unwillingness to provide public services for which funding is
available. If, for example, the state restored 90% funding for sewer systems in regions specifically
identified for smart growth, housing goals in the affected communities would be adjusted accordingly.
The reallocation of housing goals across the Commonwealth and within particular regions should be
based solely on measurable, objective criteria.
Housing growth and housing density goals should take into account what each city or town
has already done

Some communities have historically allowed more growth or allowed greater diversity in their housing
stock than others. An example would be a town that has allowed apartments and townhouses when
neighboring communities have only allowed detached single-family homes. As a matter of basic
fairness, this community history must be considered in establishing zoning consistency standards. The
most straightforward approach would be a “catch up” provision where density and growth expectations
are slightly higher in towns that are substantially below the historic norm. As with potential
adjustments for jobs and infrastructure, it is essential that housing goals be based solely on measurable,
objective criteria.

				
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posted:9/13/2012
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