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Part of our job as staff is to continually further the existing housing goals put forth by Reading residents. We feel that the MBTA Communities compliance process gives us a chance to revisit the Town's goals and ask whether or not we as a community have taken the necessary strides to meet them.
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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 overall goal of the law being to make future development of dense housing close to transit to be possible. The specific requirements that each municipality has to meet were created in order to check that each place is complying with the law in their zoning.
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.
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 a minimum of 1,493 units at a gross density of 15 units per acre across a minimum of 43 acres, of which at least half of our units and acreage must be within a ½ mile of the train depot.
(LINK) PDF Map of the 1/2 Mile Area directly surrounding the Reading Train Depot
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.
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).
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.
For more detail on Reading's current Zoning please see our Zoning Bylaw on the Town Clerk's page and our GIS map
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 years 2018-2022 this funding has equaled $290,000 in awards. In 2023, the Town was awarded a $2.6 million MassWorks grant and additional grant applications continue to be pursued under these programs. Because these are grant programs, the amounts awarded are highly variable based on the Town's applications.
In March 2023 State Attorney General Campbell additionally clarified that failure to comply will 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)
By-right, or as-of-right development means that a project will require no waivers, special permits, or any other discretionary approvals. A project is still required to go through the normal development processes including Site Plan Review or Minor Site Plan Review, and/or the regular building permitting approvals.
For example, if a 5-unit Townhouse project is proposed on a 20,000SF lot, that project would come to CPDC to go through Site Plan Review; the neighbors would be notified of the project and a public hearing and revision process would take place. By-right development simply means that the CPDC and Planning Staff cannot deny the project as long as the proposal meets the criteria of our Zoning Bylaw.
By-right development is included as a specific requirement of the 3A law because of how many communities in the Boston metro area require special permits or waivers for increased density in order for multi-family housing to be constructed. In 2019 it was summarized that for the 100 communities within the Boston metro area, in the 3 years prior 86% of all multi-family units that were permitted required discretionary approvals, meaning only 14% of units were permitted by-right.
Development is not by-right when the lot or use is determined to be non-conforming, which means it doesn’t meet the current standards of the zone. When zoning is changed over a given geography, any current lots or uses that don’t meet the new standard become considered “non-conforming”.
In Reading several of our zoning districts have a high percentage of non-conforming lots, because zoning was changed to be more restrictive after these areas were built. In our current A-40 zone that is Northeast of downtown there is only 1 lot that meets the district minimum lot size. In our S-15 zoning, about 80% of parcels are non-conforming, because they don’t meet the minimum lot size of 15,000SF. They were all built long before zoning existed and are smaller than the minimum.
For compliance with the law, non-conforming lots aren’t counted because they can’t be developed by-right. Therefore, a large portion of the decisions made about our new zoning district are simply to bring all of our lots to be conforming lots so they count for compliance in our district. You can think of it as reverse engineering the controls of our new zoning district from the actual parcels that exist today.
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 to Town Meeting in Fall 2024.
To actually achieve compliance Staff will submit our district and relevant zoning to the State for approval. We will submit a series of GIS shapefiles that map out our district and then answer 50+ questions in a spreadsheet that goes through in detail each aspect of our zoning. They run those zoning parameters over our chosen geography and confirm or deny that it meets the overall size, unit capacity, and density requirements. Staff in conjunction with our consulting team has been testing iterations of our district and are confident that our proposal will meet the State’s requirements.
The law specifically states that there can be no limitations on unit size. Accessory Dwelling Units, also called Accessory apartments or In-law apartments are size limited based on the size of the primary dwelling. Because of these size limitations they are not eligible to use to comply with the law.
No. Per the State's guidance, "for purposes of compliance with Section 3A, a multi-family zoning district should be a neighborhood-scale district, not a single development site on which the municipality is willing to permit a particular multi-family project."
In Reading, our larger apartment complexes are all single development sites on just one or two parcels, thus they cannot be used for compliance on their own.
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.
In January 2023 the Town submitted the required Action Plan to remain in interim compliance to plan the revisions to our Zoning Bylaw. Our Action Plan was approved.
We ran Phase 1 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.
Phase 2 of our process was our Knowledge Session series of events which took place from September through November, all slides and recordings from those events can be accessed under our prior events section further down the page. We presented on the history of zoning in Reading, the survey results, district controls, our preliminary district concept, and received feedback on our proposed dimensional controls and district boundaries.
Our compliance proposal was finalized and brought forth in Phase 3 in a formal CPDC Public Hearing process, as required to take it to April Town Meeting. The outcome of that series of formal Public Hearings held from December 2023 to February 2024 was the request to have staff fully analyze suggested alternatives in order to be able to make a full comparison with the existing proposal. In deciding to review these alternatives in detail, no proposal will be brought to Town Meeting in April 2024.
The agreed upon alternative options are currently being vetted by staff in Phase 4 of our process.
Phase 5 will open in late Spring/Summer 2024 as those fully analyzed alternatives will be presented for comparison, with the intention of choosing one to take to Town Meeting in Fall 2024, ahead of our end of 2024 deadline.
The goal of our survey was to receive actionable direction from residents as to the preferred types of multi-family housing for Reading. The survey was open from June 6 to September 5, 2023 and was publicized on the Town website, Town social media, in the Town Manager Minute, by the Recreation department, the Library, the Economic Development Director, the Senior Center staff, to Board and Committees both via email and at in person presentations and at community events. We received a total of 758 responses, which met our goal.
We strongly encourage anyone who is interested in the detailed survey results to read the full survey results report. You can access a PDF of the survey questions here.
Takeaways from the survey include that respondents preferred:
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, and the results of our survey. A recording of the event can be viewed here as recorded by RCTV. A PDF of the slides can be downloaded here.
An interactive workshop on aspects of zoning and the location of our district was held in person at the Reading Public Library. The focus of the workshop was on learning about and discussing the tradeoffs of the dimensional aspects of zoning and mapping a district. A recording of the event can be viewed here as recorded by RCTV. A PDF of the slides can be downloaded here.
To explore the workshop topics yourself:Adjust zoning setbacks and max lot coverage using this interactive zoning visualizer toolConsider the preferred location for the new zoning district by exploring on GIS and using the markup tool to draw the district
Staff gave a summary of our first two Knowledge Series events at this combined Economic Development Summit and Financial Forum. A recording of the event can be viewed here as recorded by RCTV. A PDF of the slides can be downloaded here.
Staff presentation of our preliminary proposal and two map options, with a robust Q&A both on dimensional controls and mapping options. A PDF of the slides detailing our proposal and relevant supporting information can be downloaded here. A PDF of the two map options can be downloaded here. A recording of the event can be viewed here
Staff takeaways from the public discussion and comments received on the Preliminary Plan design will result in the following changes to our final district proposal:
A series of formal Public Hearings were held by CPDC in order to prepare the proposed zoning amendments to take to April Town Meeting 2024. Materials from those hearings are linked below. The outcome of those Public Hearings was the decision to pause the path forward in order to have staff fully test alternatives for comparison with the existing proposal, which remains the primary option for compliance.
Prior Public Hearing on February 5: Materials from this meeting are below. A recording of this event as recorded by RCTV can be found here.
Prior Public Hearing on January 22: Materials from this meeting are below. A recording of this event as recorded by RCTV can be found here.
Prior Public Hearing on December 18: Materials from this meeting are below. A recording of the event as recorded by RCTV can be found here.
We’ve been working with DPW and Engineering using our build-out scenarios. They feel confident that our current water and sewer systems would be able to handle those proposed increases for the foreseeable future. Additional investment and upgrades would be dependent upon the location and pace of any future construction.
There is no correlation between construction and increased school enrollment. That statement is supported by data analysis by MAPC.
Overall enrollment in Reading has been trending downward over the last decade and the State projects that enrollment will continue to follow this pattern. We defer any specific questions about enrollment to the School Committee and Superintendent.
No construction is required for compliance with the law. Compliance with the law is zoning only.
From the zoning changes there could be future construction (see our build-out projections above) but no construction is required.
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.
The proposal laid out in this report is the result of the last six months of learning and engagement. Our strategy was to publicize and educate early in the process to try to bring as many interested residents into the discussion before anything was decided, so staff could have the necessary and crucial input to present a proposal directly shaped by residents’ views—as gathered in our survey and Knowledge Series events.
Our approach acknowledged our limited capacity as our Planning division is only two people, with a limited budget. Within those constraints, as of early December 2023, our engagement stats are as follows:
Types of housing:
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:
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.
Our page on Housing & Demographic Statistics for Reading
Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s short video: Why MBTA Multifamily Zoning Makes Sense for Massachusetts
This informative video by City Beautiful explains many of the zoning concepts that are crucial to understand in relation to the law.
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:
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.
The EOHLC released updated guidance on the law in August 2023.