5 min read

Welcome to Upzone Update

Welcome to Upzone Update

By Luc Schuster and Amy Dain

Welcome to the Upzone Update, a newsletter to keep you informed about implementation of the MBTA Communities zoning law in Massachusetts. Amy Dain will be the lead author, producing newsletters in partnership with Boston Indicators. These will come out at least every two weeks, through the spring (with potential for extension).

We’re sending this first newsletter to the Boston Indicators email list, but all subsequent ones will go out to this new list, so please subscribe here:

Never in the history of zoning have so many Massachusetts municipalities upzoned for multi-family housing as are planning to this coming spring. Why the rush of zoning activism? The state is requiring more than 100 municipalities to upzone a modest portion of their land this year, to allow needed housing. Many towns will take it up at their annual spring town meeting; and some at special town meetings later. City councils meet throughout the year and may take it up at any time.

It is a lot to keep track of, so we will keep track of it for you.

The Upzone Update will include analysis of zoning reform, links to relevant articles and reports, and a calendar of events, local hearings, and scheduled votes, with as many links as we can find. This newsletter is part of our broader MBTA Communities Tracker project, which will organize content from these newsletters together in one place, to be up online in the next week or two.

Since so much is happening across 177 separate cities and towns, we could use your help at crowd sourcing information to include on the website and in this newsletter; if you have updates, events, and links you would like to share, please send them to us at upzoneupdate@bostonindicators.org. Thank you!

The MBTA Communities zoning law was adopted in 2021, requiring municipalities served by the MBTA to zone districts of reasonable size for multifamily housing as –of right, near train stations when possible. In 2022, the state issued implementation guidelines which told us:

  • 177 cities and towns total are mandated to have zoning compliant with the MBTA Communities law;
  • the 12 cities and towns served by rapid transit needed to comply by the end of 2023;
  • 129 cities and towns are due to comply by the end of this year; and
  • 34 small towns have until the end of 2025 to come into compliance.

The 12 municipalities served by rapid transit all either voted to come into compliance or already had zoning that meets the state’s requirements, although Milton will be taking up the issue a second time, in a referendum scheduled for February 13. Several more municipalities, such as Arlington and Lexington, have already voted to come into compliance, well before their December 2024 deadline.

The zoning in a few communities, such as Salem, already met the new law’s requirements without any votes on new zoning needed. How do we know whether existing local zoning already complies with the MBTA Communities zoning law? The state guidelines set forth performance metrics. The state has developed a “compliance tool,” a spreadsheet/calculator, to assess whether zoning districts meet the performance metrics. The tool does not get the final word in compliance: It is possible for the tool to suggest zoning is in compliance, while additional details of local zoning requirements, beyond the scope of the tool, actually put a municipality out of compliance. In the end, compliance is judged by the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC), based on the standards explained in the implementation guidelines.

Given that many votes will happen in a short time span, and that assessment of compliance will in some cases be a labor-intensive task, we expect some lag between the municipal votes on zoning and the state’s determinations of compliance. This is why we will be tracking local votes, applications to the state, and determinations issued by the state.

Some municipal votes happen after lots of public engagement, debate, and press coverage, like in Newton, Brookline, Milton, and Lexington last year. Some votes go under the radar, perhaps to make small (relatively uncontroversial) tweaks to existing zoning to bring the zoning into compliance. These votes might go unnoticed by most observers until applications are submitted to the state. In other places, no votes will have been held prior to local officials’ requesting determinations of compliance based on their existing zoning. And in some places, votes to reform zoning significantly might not be advertised as MBTA Community zoning.

In these ways, you might not have known that Dedham, Essex, Grafton, Haverhill, Lowell, Northbridge, Pembroke, Stoneham, and Wareham, among others, have already requested determinations of compliance from the state. The movement to come into compliance is well under way.

The big picture of MBTA Communities zoning reform is straightforward. Housing is a most fundamental human need; people need more housing in Massachusetts, especially in walkable, transit-connected places. The new state law takes one step in requiring cities and towns to adopt relatively modest neighborhood zones that allow multifamily housing development in such places.

The close-up picture for each municipality may be less straightforward. The law gives municipalities flexibility to come into compliance by meeting performance metrics rather than by adhering to production prescriptions; under this law, municipalities decide where to allow the housing and what dimensional standards such as setbacks and height to apply. Municipalities will solve the puzzle of compliance in different ways, and face different challenges along the way. The details of implementation get complicated. We are here, with this newsletter, to get into the details.

MBTA-C News Round-Up

Check Milton’s town website for information on voting in Milton’s referendum on February 13. Boston Business Journal calls Milton’s referendum a test.

After some accounts have cast Brookline’s new zoning as accomplishing more than Newton’s new zoning, recently elected Newton City Councilor David Micley argues in Fig City News that in both Brookline and Newton, “you see similar stories.”

CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board Greg Vasil offered ideas in the Boston Globe to meet targets for housing construction in Massachusetts.

As reported by a local blog, Southborough’s planning board has picked potential locations for MBTA Communities zoning; hearings to open January 29.

In Wakefield, an MBTA Communities Working Group has put together a draft compliance plan. Community leaders have been debating whether the local zoning should do the bare minimum to comply with the state law, or go beyond the requirements, Local Headline News reports. A Wakefield Town Councilor reports that Town Council referred a proposal for an MBTA Communities Overlay District Bylaw to the planning board, which will hold hearings on the proposal before it goes to Town Meeting in the spring.

In Tewksbury, Community/Economic Development Planner Alexandra Lowder will hold office hours to chat with residents about planning, zoning, and MBTA Communities.

The Worcester Business Journal discusses the housing shortage in Central Massachusetts, mentioning that “Holden has faced a lawsuit and the ire of the Healey Administration for refusing to comply multifamily housing requirements in with the MBTA Communities Act.”

Manchester-by-the-Sea held a “density walk” to help residents understand what the density of 15 homes per acre looks like in the town. Manchester’s Select and Planning Boards formed a task force for MBTA Communities zoning. The draft zoning might not be ready in time for Spring Town Meeting, according to Gloucester Times.


This is a sampling of recent news reports. Future newsletters will include more, as well as a calendar of upcoming events, hearings, and votes.