Preliminary plan shows pathway to compliance
Today is the deadline for Tewksbury and 174 other Massachusetts cities and towns to submit interim action plans that tell the state how they expect to comply with the MBTA Communities law.
This new law, passed under the Baker administration, requires that towns have at least one zoning district “of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right” and meet other criteria set forth in the statute, including:
- Minimum gross density of 15 units per acre;
- Located not more than 0.5 miles from a commuter rail station, subway station, ferry terminal or bus station, if applicable; and
- No age restrictions and suitable for families with children.
Besides the MBTA Communities law, former governor Charlie Baker signed Housing Choice legislation that lowered the bar to pass certain zoning amendments and special permits at Town Meeting to a simple majority versus two-thirds.
As an MBTA adjacent community, Tewksbury needs a multifamily zoning district of 50 acres. The town may not require commercial or other uses on the same lot or as part of a project. Land may be publicly or privately owned, and there are exemptions for wetlands or protected recreation land, among other factors.
In Tewksbury, about 10% of units must be affordable for households making 80% of the area median income, around $89,000 for a family of four. The popular 55+ developments don’t qualify, for example, because they are age-limited.
Scope of the Problem
Rachel Heller, director of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, told the Boston Globe that 17,000 new homes a year are currently built in Massachusetts, down by 50% since the 1980s. Heller said 200,000 homes will be needed by 2030 to stabilize home prices and rents.
In her housing plan, Governor Maura Healey says that as of July 2022, one study found that Massachusetts has a shortage of 108,157 homes. Housing is often unavailable for those with lower incomes, including public-sector workers such as teachers, and Massachusetts businesses’ inability to recruit and retain employees is exacerbated by workers’ struggles to find housing.
Among the solutions Healey is proposing are:
- Streamlining state permitting, addressing utility connection delays and refining the process for developers to apply for and receive DHCD funding;
- Using excess state land to advance the Commonwealth’s housing goals;
- Expanding programs that help owners maintain and update homes, including lead abatement, water and sewage upgrades, weatherization, accessibility, energy efficiency and climate resilience.
News of the law raised questions when it was presented to the Select Board last January. Then in December, NMCOG Executive Director Jennifer Raitt provided a briefing to both the Planning and Select Boards on what it will take to be in compliance with the final DHCD guidelines that were issued in August 2022.
Based on Tewksbury’s 2020 number of total housing units — 12,139 — the minimum multi-family unit capacity we need to provide is 1,214 units. Within that minimum land area of 50 acres, half must be contiguous, with no portion less than five contiguous acres. And, it should be a neighborhood-scale district, not a massive single development site.
Failure to comply will affect eligibility for state and federal funding for housing, economic development, infrastructure and transportation.
Tewksbury has its initial action plan ready to go. Residents can find it on the town website.
It lists six potential areas of town that could meet the requirements and warrant more research and a suggestion that Tewksbury may implement a new 40R or similar overlay zoning district. The Smart Growth Zoning Overlay District Act, aka Chapter 40R, encourages communities to create dense residential or mixed-use smart growth zoning districts, including a high percentage of affordable housing units, located near transit stations, in areas of concentrated development such as existing town centers and in other suitable locations.
“This is merely step one of the process,” said Alexandra Lowder, Tewksbury’s Community/Economic Development Planner of the initial document. “All MBTA communities are required to submit an action plan to demonstrate that steps have been taken to move toward an eventual zoning amendment to satisfy the legislation. There will be more educational opportunities to come on the topic as the year goes on.”
In a recent Carnation interview, Planning Board Chair Stephen Johnson — who is seeking a seat on the Select Board — suggested that it’s important to take into consideration how to make the town affordable not just for young people, but also for seniors who maybe no longer need or want a large single-family house.
“They don’t want to leave town, and they’d like to find an affordable, smaller option,” said Johnson, adding that “‘affordable’ doesn’t always have to mean an apartment. You could probably find a one bedroom or two bedroom at a low price, and that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes that ‘starter home’ kind of affordability is what you’re looking for, and it’s getting harder to find.”
This law is meant to address just that by offering a mix of housing types. Now elected officials, staff and residents have an opportunity to work together on a plan to meet requirements with the least disruption and the best outcomes possible for current and future residents.
Tewksbury has until Dec. 31, 2024 to submit its official District Compliance Application.