After years of telling everyone else to embrace housing developments, now it’s my turn to wrestle with the issue in my own backyard.
I am a Milton resident, and on Tuesday, our town faces the biggest test of the state’s ambitious-turned-contentious housing law. That would be the MBTA Communities Act, which compels cities and towns served by transit lines to zone for multifamily housing.
Milton Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved new zoning in December, but opponents have forced a townwide referendum. Milton is the last of 12 communities close to Boston that had until the end of 2023 to come up with new zoning.
We blew that deadline, so now all eyes are on our suburb of about 28,000 residents. Depending on whom you ask, we’re either the poster child for residents behaving badly in the face of a statewide housing crisis, or we’re exercising our rights to local control.
It’s downright ugly, pitting neighbors against neighbors. “Yes” and “No” lawn signs have sprouted all over town like crocuses in the spring. Rather than signaling the end of the winter, it feels like the beginning of an existential crisis of who we are and what kind of town we want to become.
At least we’re not Newton — or perhaps that’s where we’re heading after an 11-day teachers strike in that community embittered just about everyone.
I’m not one to shy away from controversy, but even I don’t dare to ask neighbors walking their dogs or watching my 11-year-old’s basketball games: “Hey, how are you voting?”
To the residents of Dorchester and Charlestown I have chastised for not eagerly embracing housing, I feel your pain. Tensions run high when it’s in your backyard. I am a five-minute walk to a Mattapan trolley stop, which means I live awfully close to one of the proposed new zoning districts where denser housing would be allowed.
The No side quickly mobilized a petition drive after the Town Meeting vote to secure nearly 3,000 signatures — triple the number needed to trigger a ballot measure.
Voting yes means Milton would adopt new land-use rules that allow for a net gain of 1,733 residential units — much of that multifamily housing in East Milton. Voting no would make the town a scofflaw, and Attorney General Andrea Campbell has warned she might sue. The state could also withhold grants and other funding for schools, roads, and other services.
Opponents have questioned the legality of the new housing law. They argue that new zoning rules would increase traffic without doing much to create affordable housing, They also don’t believe the town will suffer draconian funding cuts if it falls out of compliance.
All the drama has obscured one important fact: Residents are voting on zoning, not building proposals. The MBTA Communities Act merely requires municipalities to come up with land-use rules. Town leaders still have a role in deciding what actually gets built.
I get why this issue is tearing the town apart. Some residents are mad that the state classified Milton as a rapid transit community, subject to the highest density requirements, because of the Mattapan trolley, which runs through Milton and feeds into the Red Line. The trolley is not the subway, and everyone knows that. Milton should have received a different designation. I’m pissed about that, too.
New zoning would allow most of the new multifamily units to be built in East Milton, which is nowhere near the trolley. Think about that: Having transit forces Milton to adopt new zoning, yet the bulk of the new housing would be put somewhere else.
I was six months’ pregnant with my first child when I moved to Milton a decade ago. The town was a popular place to settle for a generation of Globies, when the paper’s headquarters was on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, a 15-minute drive away.
During our house-hunting phase, my husband and I criss-crossed the region from Cohasset to Wellesley, but we decided to focus our search on Milton because the town gives you a feel of a suburb without being far from downtown Boston.
Yet inventory is notoriously low in Milton. Bad for would-be home buyers, but good for homeowners like me who have seen our homes double in value over the past decade. But if I were 35 all over again, I could not afford to buy here, where the median home price is $925,000.
The housing shortage is putting Massachusetts in an economic vise. Young talent — the backbone of our workforce — can’t afford to buy homes so they’re moving out of state.
That is why I’m voting yes. Milton is such a great place to live, and I don’t want to deny others that same opportunity. I live among teachers, police officers, nurses, professors, doctors, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, and journalists — white, Black, Asian, and Latino.
But I have to admit it’s yes with a heavy heart — and the hope that no matter what happens, Milton neighbors will find a way to mend fences.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist and host of the Globe Opinion podcast “Say More with Shirley Leung.” Find the podcast on Apple, Spotify, and globe.com/saymore. Follow her on Threads @shirley02186
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.