Massachusetts Anti-Snob Zoning Act

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Act (often known as the “Anti-Snob Zoning Act”) consists of Sections 20-23 of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40-B. Passed in 1969. This was one of the nation’s first statutes intended to address exclusionary zoning and has inspired similar legislation in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. These statutes allow for streamlined development applications for qualified developers of income-restricted affordable housing. In addition, they allow such developers to appeal local zoning decisions to a state board which is tasked with determining: a) whether the municipality has enough income-restricted housing to meet local needs and b) whether zoning restrictions imposed by the municipality render the building’s construction uneconomic. This state board can overrule local boards’ planning decisions. “Meeting local needs” is defined as: a) at least 10% of housing stock is subsidized for low-income households, b) at least 1.5% of land zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial uses is low-income housing, or c) housing on the larger of 0.3% of such land or 10 acres is currently being constructed with qualified low-income housing.

The law has spurred housing development in places where it would otherwise have been rejected, placing affordable housing in communities throughout the state. A large percentage of permits appealed to the state were granted, prompting many communities to find ways to increase affordable housing to the point where they meet the law’s criteria for adequate affordable housing.

This law has been effective at the goal of getting more income-restricted affordable housing built in the Commonwealth and at the goal of dispersing that income-restricted affordable housing to high-amenity parts of the state that had previously excluded it. However, there are a number of ways in which the law does not fully address the broader problem of exclusionary zoning cartels:

  • Income-restricted affordable housing is a small portion of the market. The vast majority of housing in Massachusetts, Texas, and every other state in the country is market-rate housing. The law’s impact on the housing market as a whole is small.
  • The mechanism in the law disperses affordable housing through jurisdictions throughout the state. There are good reasons for this: concentrated poverty is an even more intractable problem than dispersed poverty. However, the arguments for geographic dispersion of affordable housing do not translate to housing in general. If local economic opportunities in one part of the state (or country) are growing while those in other parts of the state (or country) are shrinking, the migration of people to economic opportunity is both natural and beneficial.
  • The Anti-Snob Zoning Act sets its boundaries for measuring exclusion at the level of the town or city. However, the level at which zoning cartels operate is usually smaller. Cities and towns are free to segregate affordable housing zones in undesirable locations near disamenities (e.g. highway-adjacent or industrial-adjacent land) in order to satisfy the 10% minimum while continuing to practice exclusionary zoning in high amenity areas. Public schools are a very important exception to this rule: in Massachusetts, school districts are coterminous with towns and cities so even housing in low-amenity places within high-amenity towns and cities have access to this one very prized amenity. In Texas and many other states, school districts are not coterminous with towns and cities. Additionally, large school districts often have high levels of variation in the desirability of public schools within the same district.

The Massachusetts town or city also does not translate well to Texas and many other states. Many Texas cities are much larger than Massachusetts town or cities in both geography and population, encompassing more varied urban, suburban, and rural development typologies. This makes the possibility of segregating income-restricted housing far from urban amenities and exclusionary zoning cartels even larger—a possibility that is very real given current patterns of location of affordable housing and historical patterns of racial segregation.