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Study: Pay towns to relax zoning rules

The state could help create 30,000 new apartments and houses over the next decade, easing the shortage that makes Massachusetts housing so expensive, if it paid communities to approve new residences near transit stops, in town centers, and in abandoned industrial areas, according to a study released today.

The report by the Commonwealth Housing Task Force -- which includes housing advocates, developers, business and civic leaders, and academics -- blames overly restrictive zoning, rather than a scarcity of land, for the state's high housing prices.

The study advocates three strategies for persuading cities and towns to relax their rules: Pay communities $2,000 for each new apartment and $3,000 for each new single-family home built in the newly-zoned areas; cover the cost of educating every child who lives in a newly constructed apartment or house, through high school; and reward cooperating communities with money for roads, sewers, and other infrastructure.

To be eligible, cities and towns would have to allow a density of at least 20 apartments per acre or at least eight single-family houses per acre in the newly zoned areas. In buildings with more than a dozen units, 20 percent of the apartments would have to be affordable to those earning 80 percent or less of the area's median income.

The coalition, which will present its proposal to the Legislature's housing committees Thursday, estimated that the zoning incentives would cost the state about $400 million over the next 10 years. The group also wants the state to increase its spending on affordable housing by about $670 million over the next decade. The coalition advocates the sale of about $400 million in surplus state property to help cover the costs of both measures.

"We've been hearing a lot of anecdotal evidence from developers that the major barrier they run into is that towns have zoned things in a way that it is very difficult for them to put up any kind of housing but expensive single-family housing on large lots," said Barry Bluestone, a professor at Northeastern University who heads the school's Center for Urban and Regional Policy and helped write the report. "We can't guarantee that this set of incentives will do everything we expect them to, but it's our considered judgment that they'll get us some way down the road."

Many, including Governor Mitt Romney, contend the Commonwealth's high housing prices are choking economic growth by discouraging workers and companies from locating here. Romney's chief housing and development aides and the chairs of the House and Senate housing committees support the overall concept, designed as a "carrot" to complement the "stick" of the state's Chapter 40B affordable housing law, which fast-tracks residential development in towns where less than 10 percent of housing is deemed affordable under state standards. The question is whether local officials, who are wary of burdening their already strained budgets with new development, will be willing to participate.

Daniel Morgado, town manager of Shrewsbury, where new development has helped boost school enrollment by 42 percent and forced the town to build two new schools since 1997, said that "certainly, the state recognizing the fiscal implications of growth would be a very good thing." But Morgado says he and many other local officials wouldn't necessarily trust the state to follow through on its financial commitments.

"There would be hard pressure on local officials taking those kind of chances, when they know there are communities out there that have had small lots, taken new people, and not gotten much state help," Morgado said. Edward C. Carman, president of Concord Square Development Co. and a primary author of the incentive idea, acknowledged that backers have to find some way to give local officials the confidence they will need to proceed. "That's a major problem that has to be solved," he said. "We don't know what the solution is." Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at greenberger@globe.com.

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