“MBTA Communities” Law Draws Confusion, Resistance
Updated: May 2
In 2021, Massachusetts passed the MBTA Communities Law. The law designates 175 eastern Massachusetts communities with links to public transit as “MBTA Communities,” requiring their local governments to provide zoning for more multifamily housing. This legislation aims to tackle the housing crisis in Massachusetts. More than 45% of Boston renters spend over one-third of their income on rent, a trend that has only increased in recent years. Governor Healy has placed her administration's support behind the legislation, stating that “Massachusetts is in a housing crisis … The MBTA Communities zoning requirements will help us meet our housing needs and achieve our ambitious climate goals by creating capacity for new multi-family housing in areas near public transit.”
This push for new zoning laws has been mostly successful. However, some communities have resisted the new law. In October 2022, residents of Rockford submitted a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the law. The town of Holden is one of four municipalities that failed to submit an action plan by the January 31 deadline. In Bourne, local officials have expressed uncertainty as to how to fulfill the requirements of the law, as well as if they fit the definition of an “MBTA Community.” The bill does not require the construction of multifamily units, only that there be zoning for theoretical multifamily units.
Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Cambell issued an advisory on March 15 clarifying the application of the law following this preliminary confusion. In the statement, she said, “Compliance with the MBTA Communities Zoning Law is not only mandatory, it is an essential tool for the Commonwealth to address its housing crisis along with our climate and transportation goals.” The statement further clarified that municipalities did not have the option to forgo state funding in exchange for noncompliance and that doing so may bring litigation by state and/or federal officials.
The law has seen a breadth of support from civil rights and planning organizations, who have urged its enforcement. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council endorsed the bill, saying that “Section 3A provides a vital opportunity to reverse exclusionary zoning policies that have barred many households and families from living in communities across the Commonwealth and perpetuated patterns of segregation by race and income.” The state has partnered with some of these agencies to help move the process along, including the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association, who are offering to help communities and “meet monthly for direct support and peer-to-peer learning.”
Despite some resistance, the MBTA Communities appear to be moving as laid out in the bill. It also remains to be seen how the many problems plaguing the MBTA will affect ridership and interest in living in MBTA Communities. Even with these potential challenges, the Healey administration has made it very clear that it will aggressively defend the implementation of this law.