Finding affordable housing here in Worcester is a serious challenge. Soaring property values and limited housing stock have made it harder for first-time buyers to get their feet in the door of their dream home. Affordable apartments are scarce, and rents are rising fast.

The housing deficit has been developing for years throughout the Commonwealth and nationwide. According to a 2022 national survey, Massachusetts lacks more than 108,000 housing units for its residents and ranks 11th among states that have insufficient housing.

The Massachusetts legislature recently took action to encourage the construction of affordable apartment units. The legislature could have provided state grants or state tax incentives. Instead, it chose a different approach. It changed the state’s zoning law and targeted the change at a specific set of cities and towns—those served by the MBTA.

Under the revised law, each MBTA community must have at least one zoning district that allows construction of multifamily housing “as of right.” That’s a big change for cities and towns in which multi-family buildings are tightly restricted or altogether banned. The legislature’s intent was to incentivize communities to build more affordable housing in walkable neighborhoods close to public transit, thereby improving access to work and other services.

What Is a Multifamily Zoning District?

In each MBTA city and town, the multifamily district must meet certain requirements:

  • The district must be of reasonable size, with a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre.
  • Multifamily housing must be located within a half-mile from a transit station, such as rapid transit, commuter rail, ferry, or bus.
  • The housing must be available without age restriction (i.e., no “over-55” limitations) and suitable for families with children.
  • Multifamily housing must be permitted “as of right,” meaning there can be no discretionary permit or approval process that would block the project or impose conditions to make it impractical or unfeasible.

There are 177 MBTA communities throughout Massachusetts, including Worcester. Any MBTA community that fails to comply with the new requirements could be barred from receiving certain state funds, including Housing Choice Grants, Local Capital Funds Projects, and the MassWorks Infrastructure Program.

New Guidelines Increase Flexibility and Emphasize Cost of Noncompliance

Guidelines for the new law were updated last month, based on feedback from various MBTA communities. The new guidelines provide more detail on the benefits of compliance—and ramifications for failure to comply. In particular, the new guidelines allow MBTA communities to ask the Commonwealth to consider the existence and impact of mixed-use development zoning districts when determining whether a multifamily zoning district is a “reasonable size.” Whereas ground floor commercial use was always allowed in proposed multifamily zoning districts, any residential unit capacity in that property previously did not count toward compliance with the law. Now it can, depending on various criteria.

The updated guidelines also clarify which of the Commonwealth’s discretionary grant programs will take compliance into consideration for grant award recommendations. Thirteen discretionary grant programs were added to the list. The new guidelines also provide that compliance may impact discretionary grant programs and funding decisions by other state agencies.

The new guidelines are intended not only to clarify required compliance, but also to make the requirements flexible enough to provide more affordable housing without squeezing out small businesses like restaurants, retailers, and other merchants from the mix.

Most MBTA communities have complied with the law. Some took the position, however, that compliance was not mandatory; by not complying, they simply would not be eligible for specified state funding. In response, the Attorney General issued an advisory to clarify that the law is mandatory and that every MBTA community must comply. The advisory states: “MBTA Communities cannot avoid their obligations under the Law by foregoing this funding.”