Zoning and Land Use Strategies for Housing

Today, large-lot zoning and prohibitions on multi-family housing, duplexes, and townhouses continue to be major impediments to affordable housing development, but flexibility in land use regulation can create housing choices, reduce cost, and provide more efficient resource management.

Since municipalities are able to create their own zoning, zoning can be a good resource for the municipality to initiate housing development that doesn’t cost anything. By strategically updating their zoning bylaw and what is allowed, communities can encourage higher-density housing and different types of housing where it is appropriate in the community that is still consistent with the town’s goals and character. Remember, just because you zone for it, doesn’t mean it will be built immediately, or even at all in some cases.

By being strategic and thoughtful in creating by-right uses that include a variety of housing options, a municipality can streamline the process of development and include a level of predictability for communities and developers. This means a shorter timeline of development and a lower cost in most cases, and a community can control what is built without the lengthy process for a special permit.

This section highlights the most common and successful approaches to using zoning to encourage affordable housing in your community, and provides resources to get more technical information as well as examples. MHP’s Community Assistance Team can provide guidance and direct you to resources on any of these issues as well.

This guide is divided into three sections:

  • Zoning Basics: For those new to what it means to zone land, a quick overview of what it means and how communities regulate land use in Massachusetts.
  • Zoning for Compact Housing: Smaller lots and units are often more affordable, even without any income restrictions or subsidies. The zoning tools mentioned here can help guide development of these kind of units in your community, like Open Space Residential Development, Chapter 40R overlay zones, and others.
  • Zoning for Affordable Housing: This section discusses zoning tools that, in addition to encouraging smaller development that is naturally affordable, requires affordable through deed restriction, including Chapter 40B (The Comprehensive Permit) and inclusionary zoning.