By Robert Field and Andrew King
What is the right way to solve Boston’s need for housing? Some people believe that spurring development requires weakening of protections, such as zoning laws, for existing neighborhoods. This belief puts neighbors, developers, and public officials in uncomfortable opposition. The resulting conflicts and disagreements can be heated, but they are also, fortunately, unnecessary. Both academic research and practical experience suggest that development and neighborhood protection can, and should, go hand-in-hand.
The city of Chicago discovered the hard way the folly of weakening neighborhood protections. In the hope of speeding development and controlling prices, they relaxed zoning restrictions in some areas of the city. According to a recent publication by Yonah Freemark in Urban Affairs Review, Chicago’s experiment backfired: the rate of development did not increase, but prices of residences did! How can that be? One possible explanation is that relaxed zoning rules made it relatively more profitable to develop luxury units in desirable neighborhoods. As a result, zoning changes may have encouraged the construction of a limited number of luxury units rather than more numerous affordable ones.
In Jamaica Plain, another experiment in weakened zoning protection seems to be occurring. For the most part, zoning regulations have not changed, but expectations of their enforcement have. This process of “de facto” zoning relief may be well intentioned, but it is causing a variety of harm. It is creating an unfair review process, damaging the fabric of neighborhoods, and sometimes actually slowing development.
Why do de-facto zoning changes result in an unfair process? Because they give developers an enormous advantage. Developers have the time and knowledge to navigate the zoning appeal process, but most citizens do not. When zoning variances become commonplace, the courts are the only means of zoning enforcement. Most residents, unable to mount a legal challenge, just get steamrolled.
Why are de-facto changes destructive to neighborhoods? Because it makes the community review process toothless and removes the incentive to find common ground. De-facto relaxation of zoning approval also reduces trust in government and the rule of law. We see too much of this process at the national level. Let’s not have it within our city too.
Finally, as occurred in Chicago, zoning changes can fail to provide the hoped-for benefit of increased development. Changes in enforcement, rather than legal changes of laws, as is occurring in JP, can actually slow development by causing confusion about the starting point for the design process. Anticipating zoning relief, developers are motivated to propose projects that are so outsized they incite widespread opposition. For example, a recent proposal before the JP Neighborhood Council included a plan for 15 units on a property where only six are allowed. The local community became incensed and more than 100 people signed a petition against the project. A long fight is now likely, when a more modest proposal might have gone through quickly.
Fortunately, the solution to these problems is relatively simple – at least in JP. We just need to recognize, as the experiment in Chicago demonstrates, that relaxation of zoning regulations is not a magic bullet. Relaxed zoning rules or enforcement may not spur development, may cause prices to rise, and can harm the community in other ways. We need to return to a process where zoning regulations are the starting point for discussions, and variances are granted based on demonstrated community benefits. This will allow for an orderly and fair process of design review. It will make it easier for city officials to do their jobs, increase confidence in government, and lead to developments that we can all agree both improve the city and ease our housing shortage.
Robert Field is an artist and entrepreneur. Andrew King is a college professor.