EDITORIAL: A zoning balancing act

Editor’s note: This editorial has been updated to remove references to outdated information about how close to bus stops multi-family housing must be located under the new state law. Final guidelines released by the Executive Office of Housing & Economic Development on Aug. 10, 2022, allow communities like Marblehead with fewer than 100 developable acres within a half-mile of a bus station to choose any appropriate location for the revised zoning.

Marblehead faces an acute housing affordability crisis. With over 77% of homes being single-family units, the town desperately needs more diverse and affordable options. Of Marblehead’s 8,135 total households, 2,404 or 29% are considered low-income. Yet just 333 units, a mere 4% of all housing — qualify as affordable under state law. That’s well short of the 10% mandate.

Two-thirds of those low-income households are cost-burdened, spending more than 30% of income on housing. Monthly rents approach $2,000, even for a modest one-bedroom apartment. To afford such high rents, one needs an income of $76,000. These costs are pricing out seniors, young adults and working families vital to Marblehead’s future.

Responding to similar housing shortages statewide, Massachusetts passed a law requiring about 177 MBTA communities, including Marblehead, to zone for multi-family housing. Specifically, the law mandates that Marblehead zone at least 27 acres for multi-family housing at minimum densities of 15 units per acre. This zoning must allow multi-family housing by-right and without age restrictions.

Marblehead has flexibility in where to locate the new zoning but must act by the end of 2024 or risk losing access to certain state funding sources. Some neighborhoods will understandably oppose zoning changes out of concern over development impacts on traffic, schools and town character. But Marblehead should view this mandate as an opportunity to meet housing needs consistent with its own plans.

Building modestly denser housing near transit provides options for long-time residents priced out today due to rising rents and home prices. And new housing development brings more local tax revenue than it requires in municipal services on average. Carefully chosen locations can minimize disruption by focusing first on underutilized sites.

For example, Marblehead’s 2020 Housing Production Plan notes office parks and commercial buildings along major roads could be appropriate for mixed-use, transit-oriented redevelopment. Existing business districts may also have the capacity to add housing on upper floors while maintaining ground-floor retail.

Locating housing near existing activity centers is preferable to opening up less developed areas. Marblehead can also adopt zoning policies to help integrate new housing, like requiring affordable units, green building standards and design guidelines tailored for historic compatibility. With purposeful planning and an embrace of housing opportunities, Marblehead can meet the goals of this new state law in ways that thoughtfully balance priorities.

As Marblehead’s housing plans have correctly noted, diverse and affordable housing is essential to retain aging residents and attract young families essential to the town’s future. The costs of inaction and exclusion are simply too high. Marblehead must recognize its responsibility to zone for housing inclusion and community sustainability.

The problems will be complex, and solutions may not be universally loved, but they are necessary.

The Current Editorial Board
info@marbleheadnews.org | + posts

The members of the Current’s editorial board are Ed Bell, who serves as chairman, and Virginia Buckingham, both members of the Current’s board of directors; Kris Olson and Will Dowd, members of the Current’s editorial staff; and Robert Peck and Joseph P. Kahn. Peck is an attorney, former chairman of Marblehead’s Finance Committee and a former Select Board member. Kahn is a retired Boston Globe journalist.

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