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Newton, other suburbs, face crucial housing votes ahead of state deadline

Newtonville is among the village centers that the Newton City Council is considering rezoning to allow for more housing to comply with the state's MBTA Communities law.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The Newton City Council is slated to vote Monday on a much-debated proposal to allow taller residential buildings in some commercial areas, one of a slew of key votes by communities due this month under a state law aimed at addressing Massachusetts’ housing crisis.

The vote, which has faced delays and could be pushed back again, could serve as a crucial test of the state’s controversial multifamily housing law, which lawmakers passed in 2021 with promises to open suburbs that have for decades resisted efforts to build more apartments and condominiums.

The law, MBTA Communities, requires cities and towns to zone for more multifamily housing near transit stops, and the 12 municipalities with access to the T’s rapid transit transit system — the Red, Orange, Blue, and Green Lines — must have their zoning submitted to the state for review by the end of the year.

Most of those communities — including Quincy and Braintree— still have yet to approve plans, and city councils and zoning boards are expected to vote on efforts in the coming weeks that have been in the works since the law was passed. Like Newton, Milton has its zoning vote scheduled for Monday.

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Newton, for example, may vote Monday on a plan that would allow taller residential buildings in some of the city’s village centers, commercial areas at the heart of the city’s retail base. The city council, which was initially considering a more ambitious plan, has devolved into heated infighting over the rezoning effort in recent weeks, debating over building heights of individual parcels and streets after a resounding election loss for candidates that supported the plan that would’ve targeted much more of the city.

“It’s a shame that the political discourse surrounding zoning redesign devolved into fear-mongering, misinformation, bullying, slander, and intimidation,” Councilor Maria Scibelli Greenberg said at a meeting last week. “At this point, my goal is to ensure that we all do what we know is the right thing to do, by at least voting for the MBTA [Communities] requirements in the villages ... and continue the work of redesigning our zoning in the future.”

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The Newton City Council vote will carry particular weight because the city has one of the biggest zoning requirements under MBTA Communities and a number of organized groups opposed to the rezoning proposal have threatened a referendum to allow Newton voters to decide. The groups argue the plan could change the character of Newton’s villages, overload schools, and worsen traffic.

“You haven’t heard me at any point in any of these discussions mention the word ‘referendum,’” Councilor Leonard Gentile said at last week’s meeting. “But if we continue down this path that we’re on right now... I absolutely guarantee you, you are going to get a referendum. I think it’s the worst possible thing that can happen to this city. It will be an embarrassment.”

Braintree, which only made town officials’ proposed rezoning maps publicly available after last month’s elections, is scrambling to get a plan passed before the end-of-December deadline. Some officials there have complained that the last-minute proposal gives them little time to alter or comment on what would be the biggest zoning change in the town in decades.

MBTA Communities represents the most consequential housing law adopted in Massachusetts in more than 50 years, with the potential to unlock space for more than 100,000 new housing units at a time of a severe shortage that has driven up home prices and rents, prompted many people to move away, and threatened the state’s economic competitiveness. But since the outset, officials in some towns have toyed with the idea of ignoring the law.

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Towns have faced increasing pressure from the state to comply with the law in recent months. In August, state officials said towns may lose out on more than a dozen state grant programs if they fail to comply, which combined provide tens of millions of dollars statewide for local planning and development programs. That’s on top of two major programs — MassWorks and Housing Choice — from which state officials could already withhold money.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell earlier this year said that towns that refuse to comply could face the threat of legal action from her office or community groups.

To date, only a few of the 12 rapid transit communities have passed new zoning ordinances. Brookline Town Meeting last month voted in favor of a plan that represented a compromise between pro-housing advocates and groups that wanted less ambitious rezoning, which will allow for more multifamily buildings on Harvard Street.

And last week, the Somerville City Council voted to legalize new triple-deckers to be built in order to comply with the law. Somerville, like many towns and cities in Greater Boston, had previously restricted new construction of triple-deckers.

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Andrew Brinker can be reached at andrew.brinker@globe.com. Follow him @andrewnbrinker.