Remember the Globe editorial calling on the City of Newton to tear down the paper wall of exclusionary zoning? (Here’s the V14 post on it.) Turns out that, a few weeks ago, the mayor’s planning staff took the necessary next step: they revised Article 3 of the the draft zoning ordinance to allow some significant form of multi-family housing on every lot in Newton. (Article 3 covers Residential Districts.)

What makes Newton’s zoning exclusionary zoning is the vast number of properties in the city that are zoned single-family-only. (The city has eased the rules that govern accessory dwelling units (ADU), but those rules have not added significant new homes — though the pace is increasing — and ADUs are not the answer for a whole bunch of folks who need a place to live.)

The new draft Article 3 has two major changes that take the exclusionary out of our zoning. First, it will be legal to build a two-family home on any lot in the city. Second, it will be legal to convert any existing home to a multi-family home. In the draft ordinance, single-family-only zoning is history. Editorial note: as it should be.

What makes the new draft Article 3 significant is that it appears to acknowledge that including exclusionary zoning in the working documents of zoning reform validates the historical wrong of exclusionary zoning. So, kudos to Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and her planning staff for taking the first step to erase this bit of systemic racial bias out of our city’s land-use regulation.

Before you celebrate (or despair), understand that the changes to Article 3 are just the first step to eliminating exclusionary zoning. The absolute earliest a new zoning ordinance would become law is over a year from now. There are a number of councilors who seem intent on preserving exclusionary zoning (though they probably wouldn’t put in those terms). The City Council, specifically the Zoning and Planning Committee (ZAP), and the Planning Department are planning lots of discussion and different opportunities for public input and feedback. The draft ordinance is, really, just the reference for the next fifteen months or so’s discussion and debate. 

Important note: making it legal to build multi-family homes does not make it illegal to build a single-family home on a lot. And, it does not mean that anyone will be forced to make their home or lot multi-family. You want to live in your single-family, detached house until they cart you out, may you have a long and prosperous life and enjoy your home for decades. You want to sell your single-family, detached house to some young couple who would like to raise a family in that same house, may their generations accumulate decades of happy memories.

But, if you or your neighbor wants to build a duplex or convert your home to three small apartments, godspeed to you or them, as well!

There are lots of interesting and important questions that I (and, presumably, others) will address in subsequent posts. How big can new two-family homes be? How many units can an existing home be converted to? Will the new zoning encourage teardown? Is this going to change the scale of my neighborhood? Will this just create more luxury housing? Will this actually lead to more minority families living in Newton? Will this create more affordable housing? What is the environmental impact?

Those questions require more space and attention than this single blog post. More importantly, the answers to many of these questions won’t be settled until ZAP and the full City Council have made the inevitable changes they will make. City Councilors will decide what limits are put on the multi-family options that the draft ordinance introduces.

Lots of interesting stuff ahead. Stay tuned!

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