Zoning Tools for Affordable Housing

In addition to promoting general housing development with a variety of types, there are also zoning tools that specifically create income-restricted housing, commonly called affordable housing. 

Chapter 40B: The Affordable Housing Law

Chapter 40B enables communities that have not attained the state 10% affordable housing goal to pursue an expedited permitting process.  Chapter 40B is significant because it has produced more affordable housing than any other housing program in the Commonwealth. In current Chapter 40B developments, both market-rate and affordable residences are created. The affordable units are reserved for households, mostly seniors and families, earning less than 80% of area median income.

Inclusionary Zoning

Inclusionary zoning, sometimes referred to as incentive zoning, mandates that developers provide affordable housing units in addition to their market-rate housing.

How does inclusionary zoning work? Section 9 of the Zoning Act authorizes communities to adopt bylaws that require a developer to provide a certain portion of affordable units (usually 10% to 25%) within an overall development. To help offset the cost of providing these units, the bylaw may offer an incentive, most commonly a density bonus. Other incentives include waiver of zoning requirements or permit fees, fast-track permitting, local tax abatements, and subsidized infrastructure. In many communities, the most effective way to ensure the creation of affordable housing has been to allow the density bonus.

When is inclusionary zoning appropriate? 

Building under inclusionary zoning regulation requires a relatively strong housing market to support the increased costs borne by the developer and absorbed, in part, by the market units. Without a density bonus to offset these costs, the bylaw is likely to be ineffective. Any proposed inclusionary bylaw in your community should be carefully reviewed by a zoning expert in relationship to existing permitting options (by-right, special permit, or approval not required under subdivision control). Integrating market and affordable units has become more complex as development has gotten increasingly diverse and expensive. If you decide to pursue this, seek experienced legal counsel.


Regulating Conversion and Adaptive Reuse of Existing Properties

In many cases, adapting existing properties makes more sense aesthetically and economically than building something new. Some of the most successful approaches are presented here.

Adaptive reuse

Adaptive reuse, the use of abandoned, underutilized, or functionally obsolete properties as housing, enables growth in established locations while preserving or restoring the architectural fabric of a community. Often drawing less community opposition than new construction, adaptive reuse is community preservation at its best.

A number of municipalities have modified their zoning regulations to encourage new uses—including affordable housing—for vacant or underutilized buildings. Mill overlay districts, great estates bylaws, allowing residential uses on upper floors in commercial districts, and live-work space are all strategies to bring new life to old buildings. Even absent such bylaws, reuse for affordable housing may be allowed under Chapter 40R Mill Revitalization District developments or pursuant to a Chapter 40B comprehensive permit.

Adaptive reuse often brings challenges. The proximity of mills and other industrial properties to rivers may necessitate waivers to flood plain and setback requirements. Industrial contaminants may need to be removed and the sites remediated.

Where is adaptive reuse appropriate and desirable? Reuse opportunities can involve properties that are not of great historic or architectural significance but which shape the community’s character nonetheless. Former schools, mills, military bases, hospitals, churches, and municipal buildings have been successfully converted to affordable housing.

Conversion and Adaptive Reuse of Existing Properties

In some cases, adapting existing properties into residential use makes more sense aesthetically and economically than building something new. Some of the most successful approaches are presented here.

Adaptive reuse, the use of abandoned, underutilized, or functionally obsolete properties as housing, enables growth in established locations while preserving or restoring the architectural fabric of a community. Often drawing less community opposition than new construction, adaptive reuse is community preservation at its best.

A number of municipalities have modified their zoning regulations to encourage new uses—including affordable housing—for vacant or underutilized buildings. Mill overlay districts, great estates bylaws, allowing residential uses on upper floors in commercial districts, and live-work space are all strategies to bring new life to old buildings. Even absent such bylaws, reuse for affordable housing may be allowed under Chapter 40R Mill Revitalization District developments or pursuant to a Chapter 40B comprehensive permit.

Adaptive reuse often brings challenges. The proximity of mills and other industrial properties to rivers may necessitate waivers to flood plain and setback requirements. Industrial contaminants may need to be removed and the sites remediated. Often times the floor plan of an old mill building can be difficult and expensive to convert to a housing use. And in markets with less demand for housing, it can be hard to fill new units. But it can be done very successfully- read about the Cable Mills conversion in Williamstown in the sidebar.

Where is adaptive reuse appropriate and desirable? Reuse opportunities can involve properties that are not of great historic or architectural significance but which shape the community’s character nonetheless. Former schools, mills, military bases, hospitals, churches, and municipal buildings have been successfully converted to affordable housing.