MBTA Communities & reading
Upcoming Knowledge Session Series Events:
#2 - Wednesday October 11: 7pm
An interactive workshop
In person only, at the Reading Public Library Community Room
#3 - Wednesday November 8: 7pm
In person at the Reading Public Library Community Room and on Zoom (details to come)
#1 - Tuesday September 19: 7pm
An educational session was held, both in person at the Reading Public Library and on Zoom. The focus of the event was on providing background on the law, defining the concepts that relate to the law and compliance, learning about the history of zoning in Reading, our housing goals, the results of our survey, and preliminary ideas. A recording of the event can be viewed here as recorded by RCTV. A PDF of the slides can be downloaded here.
- What is MBTA Communities?
MBTA Communities refers to Section 3A of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 40A, as passed by the state legislature in 2021. Its relation to the MBTA comes from the law’s requirements being contingent on the type(s) of MBTA transit—e,g, the rapid transit, commuter rail, bus—that serve a given municipality.
The law specifically only pertains to zoning, not construction. Zoning is the way in which towns legally specify what types of uses and sizes of buildings can be on a given piece of property.
The law states: “An MBTA community shall have a zoning ordinance or by-law that provides for at least 1 district of reasonable size in which multi-family housing is permitted as of right; provided, however, that such multi-family housing shall be without age restrictions and shall be suitable for families with children.”
The law defines a district of reasonable size as having a minimum gross density of 15 units per acre. It must be located within 1/2 mile from the relevant transit option(s) in a given town. At least half of the district must comprise contiguous lots of land of a minimum of 5 acres. The total district is required to be 50 acres or 1.5% of the “developable land” available.
Multi-family housing means housing with at least 3 units on one piece of property.
Unit capacity refers to the total number of units that could be placed on one piece of property, based on the town’s zoning regulations. Unit capacity is not a count of existing homes nor a projection of what will be built, it is an estimated count of what is technically allowable.
As of right means that projects that comply with the zoning bylaws can cleanly move through the approvals process (Site Plan Review) without requiring any discretionary approvals such as special permits, variances, or waivers. In our discussions we will use the terms “as of right” or “by-right” interchangeably.
The law does not allow for restrictions or specifications on age restrictions, size of individual units, bedroom counts/size, or number of occupants—the zone must allow multi-family housing be suitable for families with children.
The law does not require any affordability restrictions, although towns can choose to include them if they wish. More information is below.
We recommend visiting the state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities general MBTA Communities page for more info.
- What does this mean for Reading specifically?
In Reading, our relevant transit hub to the law is the MBTA commuter rail train station located in downtown (32 Lincoln Street). As we are classified as a Commuter Rail Community under the law, there are additional calculations used in determining the exact location of our required district of “reasonable size” and the corresponding exact number of units that must be zoned for by-right. The numbers listed below come directly from EOHLC and are nonnegotiable.
We are required to zone for at least 1,493 units at a gross density of 15 units per acre across at least 43 acres, of which at least 598 units on at least 17.2 acres must be within a ½ mile of the train depot.
- How did the state calculate our requirements?
Reading’s required total zoned unit capacity was calculated by multiplying the total number of housing units in Reading against the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities' (EOHLC) multiplier per our definition as a commuter rail community.
- Existing Housing Stock in Reading (from the most recent Decennial census): 9,952
- Total Units 9,952 x Applicable percentage of housing units as a commuter rail community 0.15 = 1,493
The density requirement of 15 units per acre comes directly from the law.
Our required reasonable district size was calculated to be 43 acres. The district was defined to be either 50 acres of 1.5% of the developable land area in town, whichever is less. Reading uses the latter to determine our district size of 43 acres.
Reading’s Existing Developable Station Area was calculated to be 343 acres. The developable station area is derived from taking the area of the half-mile circle around an MBTA station, and removing any areas comprised of excluded land. Excluded land includes publicly owned land, bodies of water, recreational land, public rights-of-way, and institutional uses. For the full list please see page 3 of the PDF linked below.
Because our developable station area is between 251-400 acres, Reading is required to have 40% of our unit capacity and district size within ½ mile of the Depot (598 units on 17.2 acres).
For more details on all of the above definitions and calculations, please see the guidance issued from the Department of Housing & Community Development (DHCD), now called the Executive Office of Housing & Livable Communities (EOHLC).
- Do we currently comply with the law?
No. At this time, Reading does not comply with the requirements. While we do have multiple multi-family zoning districts within a ½ mile of the train depot and in greater Reading that allow multi-family housing by right, they do not meet the required combination of unit capacity, density, and acreage. Again, the law focuses on potential unit capacity as dictated by the zoning, NOT on what is currently on a given site.
- Why should we comply?
The intention of the law is for all communities in the Boston metro area to share in the creation of diverse housing options. By working jointly over time to create more housing, the region can begin to address its dire affordability issues as the aggregate increase in housing stock releases pressure in the housing market over the long-term.
The Reading Master Plan has the stated housing goals of promoting diversity in housing types and households, increasing affordable units, and developing proactive housing policies. Complying with the law will bring Reading closer to those goals. We encourage you to look at the current housing and demographic statistics for Reading, now on our Reading by the Numbers page. Home prices have increased far above the median salary in the community, indicating that future homeownership in the town will be increasingly out of reach for the average person or family.
Communities that fail to comply will not be eligible for funds from the Housing Choice Initiative, the Local Capital Projects Fund, or the MassWorks infrastructure program. In Reading over the last 5 years this funding has equaled $290,000 in awards; additional grant applications continue to be pursued under these programs.
In March 2023 State Attorney General Campbell additionally clarified that failure to comply may result in civil enforcement action or liability under federal and state fair housing laws e.g. the state will sue municipalities that do not comply. (Press release)
- What is the timeline for compliance?
Town Meeting will need to approve changes to our zoning by the end of 2024 in order to comply. We anticipate presenting proposed zoning changes at the April 2024 Town Meeting.
- Where are we in the process?
In late 2022 we received early Technical Assistance from the Mass Housing Partnership (MHP) and their consulting team in order to test our existing zoning districts for both compliance and unit capacity. They analyzed the existing zones that allow multi-family by-right and determined that none of them currently meet the density and acreage requirements. Their analysis and recommendations are summarized in this memo.
We ran the first stage of our public education and engagement process from June until early September 2023. During the first stage of our process, staff opened and advertised our survey on multi-family housing options. Staff attended a variety of community events and Board and Committee meetings (full list at the bottom of the page) to publicize the process and answer preliminary questions.
Our Knowledge Session events will be taking place from September through November (meeting details listed at the top of the page). We will be presenting preliminary options for zoning changes during this time, with the intention to bring the final proposal to Town Meeting in April 2024.
- What do we know right now about our possible paths forward?
Reading has many possible paths to compliance, but all paths will require changes to our zoning, the primary challenge being achieving the required 15-unit density per acre.
Our survey results have provided staff with initial direction as to residents' preferences on multi-family housing. This will lead to proposing actual zoning changes that are in line with the survey results, to be worked on in our Knowledge Session events in October and November 2023 (details at the top of the page).
- What happens after the new zoning is adopted by Town Meeting?
Once the zoning amendments are adopted by Town Meeting they will be approved by EOHLC and the Attorney General’s office and become active for Reading. Once the zoning is changed it is up to each individual property owner to decide if and when they want to redevelop their property. None of the changes made require any development, they are all zoning based.
The changes made to our zoning code will hopefully align with Reading’s longer-term priorities and considerations related to the creation of transit-oriented corridors, connecting and maintaining open space and parks, and ensuring that the future growth of Reading will be thoughtfully for all.
- General Zoning Considerations & Definitions
Types of housing:
- Single-family home – 1 unit on one lot
- Duplex – 2 units on one lot
- Accessory Apartments/Dwelling Units (ADUs) –also often identified as in-law apartments are a current legal way for single-family dwellings to create a subordinate dwelling unit on the property.
- Triplex – 3 units on one lot – they are often in the form regionally known as triple deckers
- Multi-family – 3 or more units, though it is colloquially used to mean larger apartment buildings
Terms you might hear in discussions related to housing--
Transit-oriented development: Mixed residential density development centered on existing or new transportation services including bus service, rail, or bike paths. For example, in Reading this could mean building more apartments near the train depot.
Missing Middle/Gentle Density: Refers to building types such as duplexes, triplexes, and small apartment buildings up to about 10 units that provide diverse housing options. They are termed “missing” because they are typically illegal to build under modern zoning codes and typically exist as non-conforming uses from pre-zoning eras. In Reading there are many of these types of housing in the areas directly surrounding downtown, almost all of them built pre-zoning.
Mixed Use: A building that combines multiple types of use, often referring to a building with commercial or office space on the first floor with residential units above, examples of which can be found in Reading’s downtown.
Aspects of zoning to consider in relation to number of units:
- Number of parking spaces to require per unit
- Dimensional standards of proposed buildings
- Minimum lot size requirements
- Setbacks from the street and lot perimeter
Affordability vs. affordability
A lot of the discussion around housing centers on discussions of affordability. We think it is important to distinguish between legally defined capital “A” Affordable housing vs. the general discussion of affordability.
Affordable housing refers to deed-restricted units that are only available to people who are at specific Area Median Incomes (AMIs). The AMI determines eligibility for Affordable housing and is set at a regional level by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Newly built affordable units are often available, for example, to those whose income is 80% of the AMI, though deeper affordability restrictions are possible (i.e. 50% AMI restrictions).
Inclusionary Zoning refers to zoning that requires Affordable units to be included in newly built multi-family housing. Reading’s Downtown Smart Growth District (DSGD) currently requires Affordable units be provided in projects of more than 8 units.
General affordability discussions on the lack of affordable housing options typically use the 30% of income spent on housing as a proxy to discuss affordability. While 30% of income is considered a general guideline for a max to spend on housing, this is not a legal definition. Affordability can mean different things to different people based on their circumstances. When we discuss or use the term affordable in our materials we mean a rental price or home price that would be consistent with median incomes.
- Helpful Studies and Links
Our page on Housing & Demographic Statistics for Reading
Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s short video: Why MBTA Multifamily Zoning Makes Sense for Massachusetts
Amy Dain’s five-part series in Commonwealth Magazine in 2022 gives the non-planner a good understanding of the MBTA Communities law and how it will impact local Massachusetts MBTA towns and cities:
- “What the MBTA Communities law means for your town”
- “Solving the MBTA communities zoning puzzle”
- “Seeking predictable permitting for new housing”
- “Where should new multi-family housing go”
- “Overcoming the restrictions on multi-family housing”
The 2019 Report "The State of Zoning for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston" by Amy Dain is informative context on regional trends in zoning and housing.
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) has an informative Regional Housing Page with information, toolkits, reports, and more.
The Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) is a non-profit advocate for affordable housing in the region and they host events, programming, and housing opportunities and are an educational resource.
- Local Data, Resources, and Documents
We're also doing general outreach at community events and committee meetings.
We will be at:
- New Resident Open House 10/3
We've been at:
- Friends & Family Day 6/10
- Library Concert 6/20
- Library Concert 7/14
- Finance Committee 7/25
- Conservation Commission 8/9
- Historical Commission 8/16
- Presentation at the Pleasant Street Center 8/17
- Climate Advisory Committee 8/23
- School Committee 9/7
- Fall Street Faire 9/10