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MBTA Communities
Multi-Family Zoning Law

Section 3A of MA General Law, Chapter 40A

The MBTA Communities Law is a state law that requires MBTA serviced communities, like Gloucester, to zone areas for multi-family housing.  You've probably heard a lot about the law and its requirements, you may be surprised to learn that not all of it may be correct.  We've compiled the following resources to promote better understanding.

Housing4All Gloucester Resources:

Below are answers to the most Frequently Asked Questions we see

regarding the MBTA Communities Zoning Law.

  • What is the MBTA Communities Law?
    The MBTA Communities Law, also known as Section 3A of MA General Law, Chapter 40A (The Zoning Act), passed as part of the State’s economic development bill in January 2021. Final 3A guidelines were issued in 2022. It affects communities with MBTA stations (commuter rail, bus, subway) and adjacent MBTA serviced communities. Gloucester is a MBTA Community because we have two designated commuter rail stations. There are 177 municipalities in MA that are considered MBTA communities.
  • Why Does it Matter?
    The Commonwealth is facing the greatest housing crisis in the state’s history. We feel it here in Gloucester -- housing is scarce and financially unattainable for too many. According to the Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, the state has among the highest and fastest growing home prices. High rents are causing financial pressures on low and middle-income families. High housing costs are a primary driver of homelessness. Planning for housing near transit is good housing, economic, transportation, and climate policy for the state and for Gloucester. Overcoming restrictions for multi-family housing can help us maintain a diverse Gloucester and address specific gaps in our housing supply. More housing options will enable seniors to downsize, families to stay here, and local employees to live where they work.
  • What Does it Require in Gloucester?
    Gloucester, as an MBTA Community, must adopt zoning that designates: at least one district(s) of reasonable size that permits new multi-family housing “by right” that contains a minimum of 50 acres overall, which represents 1.5% of the City’s developable land area. with at least 50% located not more than 1/2 mile from a train station allows for a minimum density of 15 units per acre without age restrictions, and is suitable for families with children multiple zoning districts may be used to comply, as long as they meet Section 3A's criteria
  • Why Multi-Family Housing?
    Multi-Family housing is defined as “a building with 3 or more residential dwelling units or 2 or more buildings on the same lot with more than 1 residential unit in each building.” A variety of building types, including townhomes and triple-deckers, meet this definition. Studies show multi-family housing uses less energy thanks to shared systems, walls, and common spaces, and it can minimize buildings’ physical and operational footprints. As open space is a consistent top priority for Gloucester residents, multi-family housing and transit-oriented development is a good way to decrease development sprawl and preserve open space.
  • What Does Zoning Capacity Mean?
    Unit capacity is a measure of the number of multi-family units that the zoning allows by right in the district. Each community’s minimum unit capacity is based on a percentage of its total existing housing stock and transit community type. Gloucester’s minimum total capacity for our new district number is 2,270 units, which is 15% of our total housing units. While this may at first sound like a large number of units, keep in mind it is a theoretical determination of how many multi -family units the zoning district would allow by right on a parcel if it were undeveloped. While the goal of the law is to produce more housing opportunities, we are not mandated to build this many units — only to create zoning districts that allow for them.
  • What Does "By Right" Mean?
    “By right” or “as of right” means that use is allowed without requiring a Special Permit or other discretionary zoning approval. Section 3Azoning will allow the multi-family use “by right” within the designated district. But, while the use is allowed, developers cannot just build whatever they want. Restrictions in our zoning ordinance (height limits, setbacks, parking requirements, wetlands, stormwater regulations, etc.) still apply, and there are numerous permits and check points required, including Building Permits and Site Plan Reviews, to ensure projects are compliant and well designed.
  • Does This Override Our Local City Zoning?
    No. Section 3A requires communities to use their local authority, granted to them by state law, to adopt or amend zoning to create the new district(s) just as they would normally adopt any zoning changes. The state is merely providing the guidelines to write our zoning to be compliant. There are many existing examples of such state-mandated guidelines. Since zoning is a local matter, we have a lot of flexibility in terms of district(s) location, size, dimensional requirements, and what uses will be permitted. It is not a “one-size-fits -all” provision.
  • Is Gloucester’s Compliance Mandatory?
    Yes. The MA Attorney General issued guidance on March 15, 2023 stating all MBTA Communities must comply with Section 3A. The law does not allow for any municipality to opt out of this requirement. Non compliance municipalities risk liability under federal and state fair housing laws as well as eligibility for multiple state funding opportunities in the future. Gloucester has received nearly $9M in critical funding from some of these programs including: MassWorks for Commercial Street Improvements - $3,000,000 Massworks Infrastructure Program - Trask Street Area Infrastructure Improvements - $3,000,000 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Planning and Project Grants, EOEEA: MVP Action Grant - Low Lying Roads Project - $58,506 MVP Gloucester Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP) - $69,890 MVP Watershed and Water Supply Vulnerability Grant Program - $107,044 MVP Planning Grant - $20,000 MassDevelopment Brownfields Redevelopment: Site Assessment Grant to perform environmental assessments, 91 Commercial Street - $24,700 Site Assessment Grant to perform environmental assessments, 110 Commercial Street - $24,700 EOEEA: Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Dam and Seawall Repair or Removal Program Grant – Haskell - $99,000 GHS Flood Mitigation Barrier Construction - $2,379,000 This list does not include future funding that would be available to us or if the state expands what grants are not available to non-compliant communities.
  • Does This Reduce Property Owner Rights?
    No. Gloucester property owners within our designated district will continue to have the rights they currently have since the base zoning will remain. Individual property owners will have the option to decide if they want to redevelop their property under the new zoning. No one is required to change their property or develop new housing.
  • What About Affordable Housing?
    What About Affordable Housing? While Section 3A does not include any requirement for deed-restricted affordable housing, it does not prohibit affordable housing. In fact, Section 3A will ease development costs on non-profits which could lead to the production of more deeply affordable units. The law’s guidelines allow 10% to be set aside as deed restricted affordable. Gloucester’s current Inclusionary Zoning requires 15% set aside, with 80% or better of the area median income, in new multi-family buildings with six or more units which should be able to remain and will depend on an economic feasibility study.
  • What About Commercial Development?
    Mixed-use development that blends first floor retail and commercial use with residential units above may be allowed and encouraged but cannot be made mandatory under Section 3A.
  • Can Our Infrastructure Handle It?
    State building code already requires the provision of adequate basic utilities (including water/sewer) before a building permit can be issued. It is typically the responsibility of a developer to provide utilities and a site plan review of any potential multi-family projects will determine these impacts. If current infrastructure capacity does not allow for new development, none will occur.
  • What about Traffic and Parking?
    One of the primary goals of encouraging development near transit is to reduce reliance on cars. Building more housing in areas served by public transit and located in walkable neighborhoods near businesses and civic opportunities, residents will have options for how they get to work, shopping and leisure activities reducing the need to drive for every trip.
Housing4All Gloucester Fact Sheets & Handouts
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  • S3A Benefits for Gloucester Flyer

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Sign H4AG's Section 3A Support Petition

Show your support for compliance and meaningful zoning planning by signing Housing4All Gloucester’s petition in support of Section 3A compliance and to encourage our Planning Board and City Council to develop meaningful multi-family zoning that can help people afford to stay in Gloucester, strengthen our downtown area, and increase our diversity, vibrancy and city character.

Municipal Resources for Gloucester Residents:

The City's webpage,  State 40A 3A/ MBTA Communities Information ,  is place for residents of Gloucester to find up to date on local announcements, planning process and timeline, public meetings, and other important information as it relates to the MBTA Communities Law. Residents can also  mail questions, concerns, ideas directly to the City at 



State Resources for MBTA Communities:


The State’s, Executive Office of Housing and Livable

Communities (EOHLC),  webpage for Compliance Guidelines

on new Section 3A of MGL c. 40A: 

        Multi-family Zoning Requirement

Additional Resources:


For an even deeper dive in MA housing issues: 

The Waning Influence of Housing Production on Public School Enrollment  A study by the Massachusetts Metropolitan Area Planning Council showing that the conventional wisdom that new housing production increases school enrollment is no longer true. 

MA Land Use Regulation Causes Segregation A 2013 thesis finding that restrictive zoning leads to fewer Black and Latino households in a town. 

State of Zoning for Multi Family Housing Regulations that encourage or prevent multifamily housing in the 100 cities and towns around Boston.

Zoned Out: Why Massachusetts Needs to Legalize Apartments Near Transit  An interactive report by Boston Indicators arguing that legalizing apartments near public transit increases social-economic diversity, reduces car dependence, and lowers prices.

Legalizing Housing Near Transit in MA A 2020 Brookings report explaining why our housing affordability crisis requires statewide reforms focused on creating homes around public transportation centers.

The Boston Foundation: Greater Boston Housing Report Card  The 2022 Report Card on the state of housing challenges in Greater Boston, with suggestions for efforts we can take–from legislation and public policy to education and technical support.

Massachusetts Housing: A Three Prong Crisis, A Short paper by UMass’s Mass Benchworks about interrelated housing crises in Massachusetts.

10 Great Neighborhoods that are Illegal with Current Zoning. 10 towns in Massachusetts whose historic neighborhoods would be illegal under their current zoning rules.

The Data-Backed Case for Increasing Housing: Short paper by Housing Forward arguing that Massachusetts needs more housing at all income levels. 


Research from Other States:

Why More Housing Supply Reduces Housing Prices A definitive NYU report linking the production of additional housing to greater affordability.

Who Participates in Local Government A study by Katie Einstein and Max Palmer on how participatory inequalities in public meetings contribute to rising housing prices. 

Overcoming Restrictive Zoning An analysis of five states’ innovative approaches to zoning and affordable housing development.

Evaluating Housing Affordability Policies in Your Area A Mercatus Center report that helps communities identify areas for reform at the local level.

Exclusionary Zoning: It’s Effect on Racial Discrimination in the Housing Market A White House blog post on housing and discrimination. 

Dismantling Segregationist Land Use Controls A short law review article by professor Sarah Adams-Schoen, with some treatment of other states’ zoning reforms. 

Overcoming Opposition to Multi-Family Housing A report by Harvard’s Joint Center on Housing Studies debunking false claims by housing opponents about traffic, property values, schools, and more.

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