Q&A: Massachusetts Sen. Bruce Tarr

We’re talking MBTA Zoning Law, $4.1 Housing Bond Bill, and more


THE HOUSING SHORTAGE in Massachusetts is a significant crisis.  It’s driving people to leave the state and posing challenges for organizations aiming to retain talent.  It particularly affects seniors downsizing and young individuals searching for starter homes.  This year, communities along the MBTA commuter rail must establish "by right" multifamily housing or risk losing funding.  Also, this year a $4.1 billion housing bond bill has been proposed. The Cricket Editor Erika Brown interviewed Mass. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr to discuss this issue …

♦ Erika Brown : Let’s start with the 2021 MBTA Communities Zoning Law.  Manchester, Rockport, Gloucester, and, to a lesser extent, Essex, are among the 177 communities impacted by the bill.

♦    Mass. Sen. Bruce Tarr  : Well, the MBTA zoning requirement is actually an update to a section of the Massachusetts Chapter 40A (Zoning Act).  It came in as a three-paragraph amendment added to a massive economic development bill that authorized $626 million in spending.  It’s important to put that into context that this was really a very small component of a much larger bill.  

The original legislative language had three components.  First, the zoning district had to be within a half-mile of a train station.  Second, it had to allow for a reasonable size to be rezoned, and, finally, the district would have a density greater than 15 units per acre.  And there was also a corollary, an asterisk: there couldn’t be any restrictions on age.  The notion was the district had to be family-friendly. 

♦   EB :  Manchester will bring MBTA-compliant zoning to voters in November. Opposition groups warn that compliance would sap local resources and infrastructure, destroy downtown charm, and bring more than a million “low-wage workers” to MA. Some even brought up (immigrant) migrants, saying they would exacerbate the issue.

♦  Sen. Tarr: Well, we are having an influx of migrant families, and they are already overburdening the shelter system in the Commonwealth, and they are impacting the state budget this year by approximately $1 billion.  At the current rate, this is unsustainable. 

But even before we had that influx of migrant families, we had a housing crisis.  Depending on the study, the last number I’ve seen is we’re about 110,000 units between where we need to be and where we are.  The highest number I’ve seen is 300,000 units.  Whichever number you pick, Massachusetts needs housing.  We need to be working with our cities and towns and help facilitate the development of housing.  

What’s important to keep in mind about this MBTA zoning law is that it requires multifamily zoning “by right,” which means not requiring a discretionary permit.  However, it does not eliminate all local controls.  In fact, site plan review is allowed under the law and under the guidance and so there are tools available to maintain the character of the community and the community needs to be able to use those tools. 

I would say that I have been concerned about the “one size fits all” nature of the MBTA zoning law, and I offered an amendment to it in July 2022 to require the Mass. Dept. of Housing and Community Development—which is what it was known as back then—to have an appeals process allowing communities to make the case that either their drinking water or wastewater or transportation infrastructure made it impossible for them to comply with the law and allow them some relief. 

♦  EB:  The Task Force is looking to put more than 100  units in the Limited Commercial District, right on top of Saw Mill Brook which environmentalists have said must be protected. 

♦  Sen. Tarr :    I’m always concerned about jeopardizing the environment.  As much as housing production is a priority, we can’t jeopardize our drinking water in order to meet that priority.  And here’s a fundamental premise: you can’t have housing unless you can support that housing with drinking water and wastewater treatment and transportation. 

Let’s not eliminate the obligation to zone for housing but give some flexibility to comply with that obligation in a different way.  One of the criticisms that I’ve heard is about the density issue and about trying to have the 15 units per acre.  We clearly could accommodate that goal in a different way, for example If we had a zoning district that allowed smaller single-family lots and to be able to spread the housing out a little bit.  

♦  EB:  There’s a lawsuit by a Rockport man who holds that the MBTA Zoning violates “Home Rule,” that promises towns independence from the long arm of the state.Do you think that that has merit?

♦  Sen. Tarr :  Ultimately, that question needs to be decided by the courts and anything the rest of us can offer is merely an opinion.  But I would suggest that there is a long history of state legislative oversight over zoning.  Municipal zoning itself derives from Chapter 40A of the Massachusetts General Laws. Chapter 40B, which is often controversial, has been upheld as being constitutional and consistent with the Home Rule Amendment.  Thus, in my opinion, it is pretty clear that the state has the authority to regulate zoning.  How it chooses to do so is a matter of public policy that is open to debate. 

♦  EB:  How do you think the communities of Cape Ann are doing?  I know Essex isn’t impacted by the MBTA Zoning.  But how are Gloucester, Rockport or Manchester doing?  

♦   Sen. Tarr : Well, I do think Gloucester has done a good job of holding public meetings and engaging in public engagement. Rockport has followed a similar path.  In Manchester, I know there is the MBTA Zoning Task Force and they’ve begun public hearings and discussions.  And I think that’s going to have to be the approach.  

♦  EB:  Let’s switch to February’s announcement from the governor’s office of a $4.1 billion housing bond bill which reserves $2.1 billion for public housing upgrades that would be powerful for Essex and Manchester.  Manchester has a plan to renovate and expand its three subsidized housing properties that has been dying on the vine because it's not economically viable for developers.  

♦   Sen. Tarr :  It’s my understanding that the Housing Bond Bill that Gov. Healy has proposed is the largest housing bond bill ever proposed in the history of the Commonwealth.  Generally, these bills happen every five to 10 years.  This is the largest that we’ve seen. 

I have had conversations with local housing authorities and it’s clear that one of our priorities must be to not allow Housing Authority properties—public housing—to continue to fall into disrepair.  Especially if we’re thinking about creating new units, it’s important that we don’t lose the units that we have.  One of my goals for this housing bond bill is to make sure that there is a robust infusion of capital into our existing units so that they can be improved, modernized and maintained.  That’s one priority. 

Number two, I do think we need to explore being able to create more units for our housing authorities. One of the difficulties that we face now is that a lot of our older population is over-housed.  They may live in a 3- or 4-bedroom Victorian that’s been in the family for a long time that they can’t afford to leave.  They can’t find a place to go, but a young family could make good use of that home.  We just have to create options for folks that they can afford and that are accessible. 

A third priority is to make sure that we can help folks continue to realize the American Dream with a starter home.  That answer may be giving communities more tools to enact zoning with smaller single-family lots, or developing more first-time homebuyer programs so that they can be able to make a down payment.

 EB  :  Another huge item in the housing bond bill is allowing ADU (accessory dwelling units) by right statewide, regardless of local zoning.  That actually would provide relief to both first-time homebuyers and seniors. 

   Sen. Tarr : I consistently over the last several years filed ADU proposals, either in the form of standalone bills or as amendments.  I do think it’s a productive path for us to follow.  Obviously, there might be some discussion about the details, but I think accessory dwelling units are an important part of trying to meet the demand that we face.  They could be a particularly useful option for the seniors we discussed earlier. But also, we’ve been hearing a lot from the disability community about ADUs and how they (ADUs) can respond to the needs of that population.  So yes, ADUs are an important tool.

 EB : In Manchester, ADUs require a special permit process.  But, you can’t apply for a special permit unless you have a double lot which means legal ADUs are rare.

♦   Sen. Tarr :  Again, of all the things that we can think about, ADUs are one of the lower-impact options.  I think that’s really the most fundamental element of this conversation is that we need housing in our Commonwealth.  And the need isn’t restricted to one particular area of the Commonwealth, one particular municipality.  We need it.  We are losing folks.  The paradigm used to be we would talk about creating jobs.  But now it has to include the second component: having people to fill those jobs.

♦  EB:  Well, thank you, Sen. Tarr.  This has been very interesting.

♦   Sen. Tarr :  Thank you.

This transcript has been edited for space and readability.