Special to the Journal
The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC) has announced updated Guidelines relative to the MBTA Communities law. In response to feedback from municipal leaders in several MBTA Communities, EOHLC is revising the Guidelines to offer cities and towns either directly served by or adjacent to MBTA services a path to receive some credit for residential unit capacity in mixed-use zoning districts. The guideline revisions also specify 13 additional discretionary grants that will take noncompliance of the law into consideration when awarding funds.
The MBTA Communities law (Section 3A of the state’s Zoning Act) defines 177 cities and towns as MBTA Communities. These are municipalities that either host MBTA services or abut a city or town that hosts MBTA services. The law requires that an MBTA community shall have at least one zoning district of reasonable size in which multifamily housing is permitted as of right and meets other criteria set forth in the statute. The lack of zoning for multi-family housing is a barrier for new housing development in Massachusetts. By allowing multifamily housing near transit, we can create new housing options for families in walkable neighborhoods closer to transit options.
“The MBTA Communities law is a vital tool to incentivize and expedite much-needed housing development across the state,” said Ed Augustus, Secretary of Housing and Livable Communities. “These updated guidelines demonstrate a collaborative effort with MBTA Communities to implement the law, ensure compliance, and provide reasonable adjustments to zoning requirements without reducing the total number of required housing units. Nevertheless, compliance with the law is mandatory and today’s updates specify thirteen additional discretionary grant programs that will now take 3A non-compliance into consideration when awarding funds.”
To date, EOHLC and the Massachusetts Housing Partnership have provided more than $2 million in technical assistance to over 50 cities and towns. A total of 176 MBTA Communities are currently compliant.
New Consideration for Mixed-Use Development
Under the updated Guidelines, EOHLC will take into account the existence and impact of “mixed-use” zoning that requires ground floor commercial uses in buildings that also allow residential use as-of-right on other floors. MBTA Communities always could allow ground floor commercial in their proposed multi-family zoning districts. However, before the changes, residential unit capacity in a property that required ground floor commercial could not “count” in any way towards its compliance with the law.
The updated Guidelines specifically:
• Allow an MBTA community to “offset” the minimum multi-family unit capacity requirement in certain multi-family zoning district(s) by up to 25-percent, based on the unit capacity of a mixed-use zoning district that meets key requirements of Section 3A and the Guidelines, but for requiring a ground floor non-residential component. Such “offset” – only available where existing village-style or downtown development is essential to preserve pedestrian access to amenities – still requires a municipality to demonstrate the same total amount of unit capacity.
• Protect the financial feasibility of achieving housing goals where mixed-use zoning requires ground-floor non-residential uses by (i) setting forth location criteria for mixed-use development districts and requiring that EOHLC has pre-approved the location before the MBTA community’s vote on its zoning changes; (ii) capping the percentage floor area of each development that may be required to be non-residential (ground floor only); (iii) requiring a broad mix of non-residential uses allowed as of right; and (iv) prohibiting minimum parking requirements for non-residential uses.
These revisions to the Guidelines are intended to provide greater flexibility to MBTA communities to adopt new zoning districts in mixed-use neighborhoods, and to promote housing opportunities for residents in such neighborhoods. The revisions do not reduce the total unit capacity required by the Guidelines.
“We urgently need to clear the way to build more housing in our suburban communities, but we don’t want to squeeze out our restaurants, retailers, and other merchants in the process. These guideline adjustments will go a long way towards protecting our mom-and-pop merchants and small downtowns while – thanks to additional housing – will also create the vibrancy and foot traffic our small businesses need to thrive. We appreciate that the Healey-Driscoll administration listened to the concerns many of us shared and put forth this thoughtful solution.” Greg Reibman, president, Charles River Regional Chamber (Serving Newton, Needham, Watertown, and Wellesley).
Additional Discretionary Grant Programs Where Non-Compliance Will Be Considered
Section 3A states that any MBTA Community not in compliance with the law will not be eligible for three state discretionary grant programs: MassWorks, the Housing Choice Initiative, and the Local Capital Projects Fund.
The updated Guidelines list 13 discretionary grant programs that will take compliance with Section 3A into consideration when making grant award recommendations, emphasizing the seriousness with which the Healey-Driscoll Administration views compliance.
Those 13 additional grant programs are as follows:
1. Community Planning Grants, EOHLC,
2. Massachusetts Downtown Initiative, EOED,
3. Urban Agenda, EOED,
4. Rural and Small-Town Development Fund, EOED,
5. Brownfields Redevelopment Fund, MassDevelopment,
6. Site Readiness Program, MassDevelopment,
7. Underutilized Properties Program, MassDevelopment,
8. Collaborative Workspace Program, MassDevelopment,
9. Real Estate Services Technical Assistance, MassDevelopment,
10. Commonwealth Places Programs, MassDevelopment,
11. Land Use Planning Grants, EOEEA,
12. Local Acquisitions for Natural Diversity (LAND) Grants, EOEEA, and 13. Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Planning and Project Grants, EOEEA.