Opinion: Belmont’s Broken Zoning Is Making All Of Us Poorer.

NIMBY’s out for blood. As the Boston Globe reports, towns across eastern Massachusetts are up in arms about the MBTA Communities Act, a 2021 law that requires towns served by the MBTA to commit to creating neighborhoods with higher density housing, in part by streamlining zoning for the creation of multi family residences.

To be clear: the MBTA Communities Act doesn’t force towns to develop- or create new housing. It just requires them to relax restrictive zoning bylaws to make it easier for property owners to build multi unit structures, such as 3 family homes “by right,” without needing to go through the time consuming and expensive process of getting a special permit. In so doing, the MBTA Communities Act will, over time (years? decades?), increase the supply of housing in the Bay State, allowing our housing supply to keep up with demand and making Massachusetts a more affordable and attractive state to live in.

I mean, with a vision like that its no wonder everyone is up in arms, right? How dare state lawmakers try to make Greater Boston affordable for young- and hourly wage workers, young families and fixed income seniors!?! Thinking about- and planning for population- and economic growth? That’s Communism, my friend!!! 😉

Restrictive zoning made you rich. It’s gonna keep your children poor.

Seriously, though: what’s difficult for many of us Belmont homeowners to grasp about the housing affordability crisis facing our town (and our state) is the way that it actually harms us and dims our prospects for the future – not just those of younger generations. 

Its a tough notion to swallow. After all, if you purchased a home in Belmont any time in the last -oh- 40 years or so, the Town’s restrictive zoning (and that of our neighbors) and the resulting shortage of housing in Greater Boston have made you rich. A standard Belmont single family colonial that sold for $200,000 in the early 1990s, for example, sells today for between $1.1 or $1.4 million – a more than 450% increase, which is well ahead of inflation.

But let’s be clear: you’ve gotten rich as a homeowner not because of the ineffable loveliness of Belmont center or the charm of your colonial or split level. You’ve gotten rich because you’re on the right side of a wildly skewed marketplace: holding precious supply in the face of ravenous demand.

200K new Bay State homes needed by 2030? Umm…

And that problem is only getting worse. According to this article in the Belmont Citizens Forum, a 2021 report released by the Baker administration estimated that the net population of Massachusetts is expected to grow at a rate of 4.5 percent by 2030, creating a need for up to 90,000 more housing units, in addition to the 35,000-110,000 required just to catch up with unmet demand. And that demand is state-wide, with a real occupancy rate of more than 97 percent in the Bay State. 

That means the Commonwealth needs to build as many as 200,000 new homes by 2030 to support our residents and stabilize home prices and rents. But we’re way off from that mark – producing half the number of homes per year as we did 30 years ago. It leaves us, today, with far less housing than is needed given the vibrant local economy (higher ed, healthcare, biotech, high tech) that has attracted loads of well paid workers who – guess what – need places to live.

Too bad for them right? Yeah. But too bad for us, also. That’s because the skewed housing market has all kinds of deleterious effects that might be hard to grasp if you’re just sitting there staring at your home’s estimated value on RedFin. What are some of those harms that are waiting for you out there just beyond the horizon? Well, let’s start with your kids. 

Won’t You Won’t Be My Neighbor!!

Those of us who grew up in the 70s remember Mr. Rogers friendly anthem: “Won’t you be my neighbor?” Fred’s neighborhood was a sweet, diverse and welcoming place. Affordable? Hard to know, but I’m gonna say “yes!” Alas, the message Belmont is sending to our children right now is less “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and more “You Won’t Be My Neighbor!” 

That’s because skyrocketing housing prices, coupled with other inflated costs borne by younger generations, like rent, tuition and healthcare, mean that the likelihood of our children being in a position to buy a home in our town when it comes time to settle down is very low (absent an infusion of intergenerational wealth, aka “funny money,” of course). 

This sad reality apparently isn’t lost on those of us in town, either. A couple weeks back, I did a poll on the Belmont Community Chat Facebook page that posed this question: “If there are no changes to housing availability and affordability in Belmont, the chances that my children/grandchildren will be able to afford to buy a home in town are:”  The possible responses were: Very High, High, Low, Very Low or No Chance.” 

A Facebook poll on Belmont Community Chat.

More than 100 people took the poll (n:118) The response? More than 8 in 10 who took the poll rated the chances of their children or grandchildren being able to afford to buy a home in Belmont as “Very Low” (60%) or “No Chance” (21%). In other words: we’ve engineered things so that the wonderful, walkable, welcoming town that nurtured our kids is effectively out of reach for them to raise their own children in. 

The likely result? Massachusetts was the seventh most moved-out-of state in the country in 2023 according to data from United Van Lines, with popular destinations being more affordable states like Vermont, South Carolina, and Rhode Island. Over the long term (decades) that outflow of young professionals will hinder economic development in Massachusetts. The next Bose, WayFair, Toast or Rapid7 may launch in Providence or Austin, Texas rather than Boston, Massachusetts.  

The senior trap

Then there’s the burden that our sclerotic housing market places on older residents. Many older Belmontonians are “aging in place.” That is: staying in large, mostly empty single family homes where they raised their families well into their later years.

Restrictive zoning hasn’t just meant that there are fewer homes overall. It also means that there is little variety in housing types, while the housing stock is quite old. For those who occupy these properties, that means higher costs for maintenance, upkeep, and utilities. It also means sub-optimal configurations for senior living: physically isolated and with multi-floor layouts with stairs that must be navigated. Some older residents stay because they want to. Many stay because there are no other housing options, and finding a more appropriate residence means leaving Belmont altogether. 

As we age, this lack of age appropriate housing can become a financial burden on seniors living on fixed incomes, and pose real physical- and psychological risks (falls, loneliness and depression, etc.) In other words: the housing crisis status quo that made us rich is poised to make us poor – possibly financially and certainly by most other non-financial measurements: quality of life, social cohesion, family and personal relationships, happiness. This wave is poised to hit us hard  – even if we don’t recognize it yet. 

Belmont’s housing ‘exclusivity’: a feature, not a bug

None of this is by accident. For the last 50 years, exclusivity was a “feature” not a “bug” in Belmont’s zoning and town planning. As Rachel Heller has observed: Town officials were well aware even in the mid 1970s that restrictive zoning was likely to thwart needed development and drive up prices. In 1976, Heller notes, a Belmont growth plan stated, “This town will remain a relatively expensive place to live and so will attract only those families so economically situated.” 

Half a century later, that sentiment is still alive and well. “What does it take to make the Town more affordable?” local resident PJ Looney asked in response to the Facebook poll. “My answer is things that make the Town less desirable. Dense housing is undesirable to both the historic aesthetics of Belmont…and eventually that will show up in crime and academic performance metrics and then prices will drop. So I would say more housing would make the Town more affordable for my kids to live in but much less desirable.”

Today, we’re reaping the (bitter) harvest that a half a century of restrictive zoning have sown. That includes sky-high home prices and rents that are far beyond the means of most Massachusetts residents. As Rachel and Thayer Donham noted in a recent Belmont Citizens Forum post, most people who work in Belmont can’t afford to live in town, with current rents requiring a household income of $94,000 to afford a two-bedroom apartment and a household income of more than $325,000 to buy a single-family home in Belmont.

MBTA Communities Act: a better future for Belmont

It doesn’t need to be this way. As you probably know, with the MBTA Communities Act there’s an effort under way at the state- and Town level to reform zoning requirements and encourage denser residential and multi-use development. That will create more and better housing options for both existing residents and those wishing to settle in Belmont. 

Mind you: this isn’t about bulldozing neighborhoods and putting up massive housing developments “Robert Moses” style. In fact, it’s not about building at all, but about simplifying zoning to make it easier from property owners to build multi-unit housing (defined as 3 or more units) and increase the supply of so-called “workforce housing;” and then let home owners and the housing market do their thing.

Over time, the streamlined zoning will promote denser housing developments around major transit hubs. When fully enacted, the MBTA Communities Act will help to alleviate our pinched and exorbitant housing market, create more options for homebuyers, foster denser, pedestrian friendly development and improve the quality of life for residents of all different walks of life.

States like California have already implemented laws such as the MBTA Communities Act that mandate smoother, less restrictive local zoning – including “by right” construction of accessory dwelling units. The result? Housing is rapidly becoming more affordable in The Golden State and making it easier for residents to find places to live, as this Globe article highlights. As for “neighborhood character” – that NIMBY rallying cry – its hard to look at places like La Mesa, California and conclude that the state’s new rules that are more accommodating to denser development have been “ruinous.”

New state zoning laws in California have allowed a growing variety of housing types. (Source: Boston Globe.)

This has been a multi-year effort, with a special town committee created to oversee the process. that is nearing its end, with a vote by Town Meeting needed by the end of the year to approve the Town’s plan to comply with state law. Unfortunately, in recent months there’s been a groundswell of opposition to the MBTA Communities Act in some affected communities, with Milton voters earlier this month voting to refuse to comply with the law. (Governor Healey’s administration responded this week by barring Milton from receiving state grants and rescinding a recent $140,800 grant for seawall and access improvements. Stay tuned for more!)

Non compliance – another word for breaking the law

“Non compliance” – the euphemistic term for “ignoring the law” would be a costly and damaging dead end for Belmont, just as it will be for Milton. Towns that don’t like the terms of the MBTA Communities Act should work through their representatives on Beacon Hill to change the law. Simply ignoring it – or 40b or SPED or building codes or other state laws we don’t like – isn’t an option. Sorry.

So change is coming. If that sounds scary to you, maybe check out this article from The Globe which compares Massachusetts’ housing shortage and affordability crisis with that of California’s. The article explores how California’s passage of a raft of housing reform laws in recent years has loosened restrictive zoning and is finally beginning to spur much needed development and bring down housing costs that allow residents – in many cases – to stay in the communities where they grew up. 

“People love the places where they live,” the article quotes Colin Parent, a La Mesa city councilor and housing advocate saying. “Sometimes those places have to change to preserve the things we love about them.”

That’s a message we should all take to heart here in Belmont!