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A Reformer’s Guidebook to Zoning’s Knots

Approval Processes for Multi-Family Housing in Greater Boston

Amy Dain

October 2021, English

Local permitting of residential construction in Boston’s suburbs has evolved, along a centurylong trend line, to be more flexible, political, complex, unpredictable, and ad hoc. The route to project approval now often involves negotiation between municipal officials and developers. Local approval processes are often designed to enable municipalities to capture value, in many forms, from development. Meanwhile, there has been a robust, sustained campaign over recent decades, led by a coalition of pro-housing advocates, to make the permitting system more predictable and straightforward. The campaign has led to only marginal, or exceptional, changes to local permitting processes so far.

This working paper traces the history of the evolution of the local permit approval systems and examines the logic behind the systems. The paper offers reformers insights into a highly complicated, confusing, and evolving system that balances many interests and responds to many constraints, including constitutional law. The paper is meant to be a resource for people interested in reforming zoning who are not already experts in the topic, for example local volunteers, city councilors, legislative aides at the State House, students-in-training to become land use planners, new planners, and others involved in the dynamic system.


Housing, Local Government, Zoning