You are on page 1of 39

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 1

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 2

7/28/2020 – Councilor Rourke/Councilor Nuon – Req. City Mgr. Review Current Zoning Code for Areas to Increase Housing Availability

We last overhauled the City’s Zoning Code in 2004. The world has In the Traditional Neighborhood Multi-Family (TMF) zoning district,
changed considerably since then, and the need for housing—in both 40 percent of homes are on lots that the code deems too small to allow
number and type—has changed too. This report provides a menu of even one house. Ninety-three percent of lots in the TMF are too
zoning changes that the Council could adopt to increase housing small to allow a triple-decker, the archetypal New England home.
availability in the City. Draft ordinances are ready for some of these In the Traditional Neighborhood Two-Family (TTF) zoning district, 96
ideas and we are ready to explore all in further detail as directed by the percent of lots are too small—according to the code—to allow two
Zoning Subcommittee and the full City Council. homes.

The recommendations in this report come from years of saying no: to In 2016, the City of Somerville released a report with the stunning
the family who wants to build an in-law apartment for their aging finding that in the city of 80,000 people only 22 residential buildings
grandparent, to the owner who wants to add an attic apartment to met the current zoning requirements. One thinktank called the findings
offset the cost of their mortgage, and to builder who wants to turn a “The Illegal City of Somerville”. 1 We could write a similar report
vacant lot into a new home. To start saying yes, we need to debate and about Lowell. Yet, we love our neighborhoods and the historic homes
discuss the over 20 ideas in this report to use zoning to increase in them. We can start by making these neighborhoods legal once
housing. again. Somerville is well on their way to doing so.

The need for new housing is significant. Every year we fall far short of Zoning cannot undue the decades of disinvestment in public housing
the new homes needed to just keep up with population growth—a by the Federal Government. However, we cannot begin to solve our
shortage of nearly 3,400 homes over the last 15 years. Failing to housing crisis without reevaluating our regulations and determining
produce these homes translates into higher rents and mortgages. Sixty which ones are unnecessarily stymying change. When we allow more
percent of Lowell households rent. Of those households, 55 percent are housing, we will be inviting more neighbors into our city. These
rent burdened. neighbors will be customers at our restaurants, entrepreneurs who
create jobs, and they will be eyes on the street to keep our city safe.
We need to allow for new missing middle housing, the sort of housing
that we see throughout our neighborhoods: duplexes, triplexes, We are not actively denying housing in Lowell to those who can afford
quadplexes, and small apartment buildings. These types of buildings our prices. However, we have a moral obligation to ensure our zoning
are impossible to construct today without many variances. Under does not raise those prices to heights where we lose the rich multi-
current zoning, over two-thirds of the city is zoned exclusively for cultural and socioeconomic diversity that makes Lowell the city we
single-family homes. In those neighborhoods that theoretically allow love.
for multi-family homes, Special Permits, minimum lot sizes, and other
dimensional requirements block construction.
Jared Alves

Senior Planner
October 23, 2020

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 3


I. THE NEED ...................................................................................5 D. New Ordinances .................................................................... 25

II. HOUSING VISION ....................................................................8 1. Allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) ............................. 25
III. ZONING REFORMS............................................................... 10 2. Issue Zoning Amnesty for Illegal Units.................................. 27
A. Rezoning ................................................................................ 11 3. Adopt an Ordinance to Permit Use Variances ........................ 28
1. Legalize More Housing Types in More Places ....................... 13 4. Pass an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance ................................. 28
2. Expand the Downtown Mixed-Use (DMU) Zone ................... 15 5. Adopt an Affordable Housing Overlay................................... 29
3. Reevaluate Riverfront Zoning ................................................ 16 E. Revise Sections ...................................................................... 30
B. Dimensional Requirements ................................................... 17 1. Amend the Definition of a Family ......................................... 30
1. Revise Requirements to Reflect Existing or Desired Pattern... 18 2. Revise Section 8.1 to Again Include all Large Buildings ........ 33
2. Increase Maximum Allowed Floor Area Ratios (FARs) ......... 19 3. Increase the Threshold for Site Plan Review .......................... 34
3. Increase Maximum Allowed Building Heights and Stories..... 19 4. Revise the Planned Residential Development Ordinance........ 34
4. Eliminate or Reduce Off-Street Parking Minimums ............... 20 5. Reevaluate the Downtown Smart Growth Overlay District .... 35
C. Table of Uses ......................................................................... 21 6. Rescind the Neighborhood Character Special Permit ............. 35
1. Allow Multi-Family Homes of a Certain Size by Right .......... 21 7. Clarify Neighborhood Character Review ............................... 36
2. Permit More Housing in the Regional Retail (RR) District ..... 23 IV. CONCLUSION AND NEXT STEPS ..................................... 37
3. Allow Manufactured (Mobile) Homes ................................... 24 V. REFERENCES .......................................................................... 38
4. Allow More Single Room Occupancy (SRO) ......................... 24

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 4

Permitting additional housing is vital as the Greater Lowell Health
Alliance and Lowell General Hospital have found that “Lowell has
the highest gross rent as a percent of income and is the fourth
most expensive city” in Massachusetts. 2 The assessment also noted,
“more than half of all rental units” in Lowell “cost more than 30% of
household incomes.” When “this threshold passes 32%... [it] can lead
to a homelessness crisis”. 3

Zoning reforms alone cannot solve this crisis, but zoning is an

essential tool to increase housing availability to decrease the cost of
housing. Researchers have found that “for every 10% increase in the
housing stock, rents decreased 1%”4 and that even new buildings
“decrease rents by 5 to 7 percent” 5 in nearby buildings. New buildings
help blunt rising rents because relatively wealthier individuals will
choose these newer buildings, thereby freeing up older housing with
lower rents for comparatively less wealthy households. 6 As the chart
to the right shows, Lowell is not building enough housing today.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) i maintains a Source: U.S. Census Bureau Annual Building Permit Survey, as reported by DataTown, a
website called Housing MA to aid municipalities in creating Housing product of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data.
Production Plans. The site analyzes expected population growth,
changes in housing preferences, changes in family sizes, changes in When demand for new housing outpaces construction, prices increase.
age cohorts, and the housing needs of retiring Baby Boomers to project The increasing prices then translate into higher costs for new
housing demands. For Lowell, MAPC projects an annual need to homebuyers and renters. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American
construct 110 single-family homes and 220 multi-family units. 7 Community survey captures median monthly rents. As the chart on the
Accounting for all types of housing units, from 2005 to 2019 the City next page shows, since 2010, the Lowell median rent has increased
averaged about 104 new homes per year. Over the 15-year period, nearly 6 percent. During that same period, the rental vacancy rate fell.
the shortfall totaled nearly 3,400 homes.

MAPC is the regional planning agency for the 101 municipalities of Metro Boston.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 5

Source: calculated using U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates Source: calculated using U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
from 2010-2018, Table DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics. Median rents inflation adjusted from 2018-2018, Table DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics.
using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator comparing
January in each year to January 2018.

Higher rents and falling vacancies mean that an increasing percentage of According to the American Community Survey, 55 percent of
Lowell households are rent burdened.ii These households have less Lowell renter households are rent burdened.8 Further, the chart above
income to pay for their transportation, meals, and other essentials. They shows that the percent of rent-burdened households has increased since
save less per month and are at greater risk of further financial hardship 2010. Focusing on renter households is important because nearly 60
and even homelessness due to unexpected shocks, like steep medical percent of Lowell households rent. In addition, since 2010 the median
bills following an accident or illness. To afford rent, lower income selected monthly owner costs have declined 16 percent. 9 As costs have
individuals may also share rooms making them susceptible to pandemics fallen for homeowners, they have increased for renters, and renters who
like COVID-19 that thrive in overcrowded conditions. Many Lowellians were already a majority of households in Lowell are an increasing share
are experiencing this hardship today. of all households.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “rent burdened” as spending

more than 30% of income on rent.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 6

Source: U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates from 2010-2018,
Table DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics

The data from MAPC shows that Lowell is not permitting enough new
housing each year and costs are increasing. Researchers have found that
building new housing is necessary to stem and reduce rising housing
costs. Lowell renters are particularly vulnerable to rising costs as most
are already rent burdened today. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is
strangling finances in the short-term, and the prospects of American
climate refugees competing for homes in cooler, inland Northeastern
cities in the long-term will exacerbate the current shortage. 10
Fortunately, we already have agreed to a vision for building housing that
accounts for the varied needs of the community.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 7


Sustainable Lowell 2025, the City’s master plan, set the vision for housing in the city by defining a Housing Choice goal: Lowell will seek to provide
a range of safe, fair, high quality, and affordable housing opportunities for residents of all backgrounds in an effort to achieve the level of diversity
that will germinate both prosperity and innovation. Although the goal calls for providing a range of housing, the chart below shows that since 2004
over 70 percent of all new homes were in single-family buildings. The skewing towards single-family homes exists despite builders converting large
former mills into multi-family residences during this period.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau Annual Building Permit Survey, as reported by DataTown, a product of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 8

To deliver a range of housing types, we need to enable builders to The subsequent pages will outline ways that the City can modify
convert and construct a range of housing types—from detached single- zoning to enable more missing middle housing construction. We
families to duplexes and triplexes, small apartment buildings to large intend this list to stimulate a discussion of which specific reforms to
ones. However, the City has not seen a diversity of new housing types. pursue and an analysis of the setbacks, heights, boundaries, etc. that fit
If the City were meeting the housing targets set by MAPC, single- Lowell. By preparing this list, we have taken the first step to
family homes would comprise 50 percent of all new homes. Over the acknowledge that we have a housing crisis. Responding to the crisis
14-year period shown in the chart on the previous page we still saw will take considerably more time and resources.
528 fewer single-family homes built than MAPC projected we need.

A concept called Missing Middle Housing is helpful to frame the

types of homes that we have left out. Coined by Daniel Parolekiii, the
concept illustrates the types of older homes that are prevalent in
Lowell. However, many of these homes are difficult to build under
today’s Zoning Code. In the image above, the single-family and larger
apartment buildings are relatively easier to build. However, the
duplexes, triple-deckers, and other smaller multi-family buildings are
more difficult.

Parolek is a principal at Opticos, an architecture, design, and urban planning firm.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 9


Zoning is an essential tool to deliver a range of safe, fair, high quality,

and affordable housing. In the subsequent pages, we outline the ways
that zoning can advance this goal by describing a series of reforms that
fit into one of five categories:

A. Rezoning
B. Dimensional Requirements
C. Allowed Uses
D. New Ordinances
E. Revised Sections

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 10

A. Rezoning

The three potential reforms in this section focus on redrawing the

boundaries of existing zoning districts to increase the coverage of
districts that allow more housing:

1. Legalize more housing types in more places

2. Expand the Downtown Mixed-Use (DMU) zone
3. Reevaluate riverfront zoning

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 11

Map of Types of Housing Permitted in Lowell

■ Single-family Districts ■ Multi-Family (2+) Districts ■ No Housing Permitted

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 12

1. Legalize More Housing Types in More Places

The map on the previous page reveals that only single-family homes apartment buildings. In recent decades, the trend has been the
can be built on two-thirds of all land zoned for housing in the opposite. Instead of accommodating more types of housing on more
Lowell. Most of Pawtucketville and Belvidere as well as the majority parts of the city, we first established and then extended land zoned
of the Highlands and Centralville neighborhoods only permit single- exclusively for single-families. The effect is to restrict most parts of
family homes. Many residents value single-family homes for their the city to a type of housing that can support the fewest families and
added privacy, the opportunity to have a larger yard, and more space. households. These types of homes are also the most expensive. 12
However, restricting extensive areas to only single-families blocks the
incremental increases in intensity that have occurred over the nearly The zoning maps below show the same part of the Highlands and
10,000 years of urban history.11 Lower Highlands in the 1985, 2004, and 2019 zoning maps. In 34
years, the area went from allowing multi-family housing as an M1
In short, as land values rise, owners would shrink their lots to district, to only two-family housing as a TF district, and finally a mix
accommodate more homes, add stories or carriage houses on a lot with of single-family, two-family, and multi-family by 2019, with the
an existing home, and ultimately some lots would eventually feature majority of land reserved for exclusively single-family housing (SSF

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 13

and USF). As Section B1 will show, many areas that theoretically
allow multi-family housing actually prevent such as housing due to
steep dimensional requirements (e.g., minimum lot sizes).

Reserving a supermajority of residential land for single-family homes

is not a Lowell phenomenon, but the practice is now receiving scrutiny
elsewhere. Campaigners have highlighted that the roots of exclusively
single-family zoning stem from the federal legacy of redlining and
racist housing covenants, with the effect that single-family zoning
often excludes Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color. 13,14 Many
cities are starting to grapple with this legacy and are legalizing
more types of homes in more places. In December 2018,
Minneapolis legalized three-family homes citywide. 15 In August 2020,
Portland, OR legalized market rate four-family homes citywide and
six-family homes if the developer meets affordability thresholds. 16 The
Newton City Council is also now exploring ways to allow more
housing types near to transit.17 Next month, Arlington, MA will vote at
The same building envelope accommodates 1-8 units. Image by Opticos
town meeting on whether to eliminate single-family zoning citywide. 18

Reevaluating the boundaries of single-family zones to allow more

types of housing in more places is essential to increasing housing
construction. Allowing an owner to convert their home into a duplex
or to build an accessory dwelling unit does not mean that every single-
family home will transform overnight (or ever) Single-family homes
will remain legal in these districts. Individuals would just have the
flexibility to add homes. As the rendering on the right shows,
regulating the maximum building envelope/form can ensure that
missing middle housing is no larger than their single-family peers.19
The number and types of homes depends on which other zoning
changes we adopt.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 14

2. Expand the Downtown Mixed-Use (DMU) Zone

The boundaries of the Urban Mixed-Use (UMU) and DMU districts

are not always recognizable on the ground. However, the allowances
for home building in both districts differ. For example, the UMU has
stricter dimensional and higher parking requirements, which may
discourage infill redevelopment of parcels. Extending the DMU into
certain areas of the UMU may unlock the potential of these sites for

For example, in the JAM neighborhood only Appleton Street is

excluded from the DMU, while Jackson and Middlesex are included.
In addition, the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments
evaluated Upper Merrimack/Pawtucket streets and concluded that we Upper Merrimack at the Western Canal looking toward City Hall in 1919. Lowell National
should extend the DMU to all parcels along Merrimack Street from Historical Park photo.
Dutton Street/Arcand Drive to Suffolk Street (currently zoned
UMU). 20 NMCOG specifically noted the flexibility that DMU would
provide to builders. To increase housing, we could evaluate rezoning
these and other adjacent streets as DMU.

Upper Merrimack from the same location in 2019 reveals a loss of housing and increase in
surface parking lots. © Google Streetview

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 15

3. Reevaluate Riverfront Zoning

Many areas along the Merrimack River are zoned single-family or for
only up to six residences on a lot. Building along the river can be
difficult because of the expense of complying with the Wetlands
Protection Act, which requires 1:1 compensation for any loss of flood
storage for fill in the floodplain. At scale, builders can spread the cost
of infiltration basins and other flood control devices across multiple
units, which can make these projects feasible.

The Grandview Apartments are one example of the types of apartment

or condominium buildings that we could permit if we extended the
Suburban Neighborhood Mixed-Use zoning district (SMU) or other
multi-family districts along the river. Since the Grandview is in the
floodplain, it is unlikely that a smaller residential development would
have been feasible in that location. Projects of this scale would require
approval from a land use board, which creates an opportunity to
condition the project on the developer contributing to community
benefits (e.g., river walk trails) and change the way the city greets the

Built in 2006, the Grandview Apartments are entirely within the floodplain and needed
Conservation Commission approval to provide compensatory flood storage through a storage
vault and detention basin. © Grandview Apartments

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 16

B. Dimensional Requirements

The four reforms in this section focus on revising the existing

dimensional requirements to permit homes on smaller lots, bigger
homes on the same lot, and reduce or eliminate the parking
requirements that increase housing costs directly and use land that
could instead be housing:

1. Revise requirements to reflect existing or desired pattern

2. Increase maximum allowed floor area ratios (FARs)
3. Increase maximum allowed building heights and stories
4. Eliminate or reduce off-street parking minimums

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 17

1. Revise Requirements to Reflect Existing or Desired Pattern

Frequently, we field inquiries from residents who believe that they code prevents owners from constructing new ones or converting
have a buildable lot adjacent to their home or asking how they could existing buildings today. Even though the TMF allows for up to six
convert their two-family to a three-family, like all the others in the units on one lot, the chart below reveals that over 40 percent of lots in
neighborhood. However, the minimum lot size, lot area per dwelling the TMF are too small per the Code to allow even one home (white
unit, frontage, setbacks, and usable open space requirements (i.e., the portion), let alone six.
“dimensional requirements”) often prevent residents from building or
expanding without obtaining variances from the Zoning Board. Number of Homes Allowed per Lot as a Percent of All TMF Lots

■ 0 homes ■ 1 home ■ 2 homes ■ 3 homes

■ 4 homes ■ 5 homes ■ 6 homes

While the Zoning Code aims to preserve the character of

neighborhoods, building a two-family or a triple decker that conforms
to the current lot size requirements would be anomalous. The net effect
is that almost no lots are large enough to meet the current requirements
for multi-family, missing middle homes. This situation is not unique to
Three-family homes on 2,068 sq. ft. and 2,949 sq. ft. lots in Centralville (left)
the TMF. The current requirements for the TTF zoning district mean
and the Acre (right). © Google Streetview that the Code deems 96 percent of lots as too small to accommodate a
two-family home. Lowellians love their neighborhoods and many
For example, building a triple decker—a New England archetypal would be surprised to learn that the Code makes them illegal to rebuild
housing style—now requires 12,000 sq. ft. of land in the Traditional today. We could revise the dimensional requirements to legalize
Neighborhood Multi-Family (TMF) district. However, 93 percent of existing neighborhoods and allow people to add incrementally more
lots in the TMF are smaller than 12,000 sq. ft. Building a two- homes like their peers.
family home in the TMF is not much easier. The code would require a
lot with at least 8,000 sq. ft., but 82 percent of lots in the TMF are too
small. Many preexisting, non-conforming two and three-families are
on lots that are smaller than 8,000 sq. ft. and 12,000 sq. ft., but the

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 18

2. Increase Maximum Allowed Floor Area Ratios (FARs)

The Gross Floor Area of a home divided by the size of the lot equals Estimated FARs in the TSF and USF Zoning Districts
the FAR. Essentially, a one-story home that is the size of its lot would
have an FAR of 1.0. Establishing a maximum FAR is one way to
control the size of a home to ensure that buildings are similar to their
neighbors. In 2019, we conducted an analysis at the request of the
Zoning Board to see how the current maximum FAR requirements
relate to the buildings on the ground.

Today, the vast majority of homes in the TSF (71%) and USF (75%)
zoning districts exceed the maximum FARs. iv The box plot on the
right shows the range, median, upper quartile, and lower quartile of
estimated FARs for existing housing in the TSF and USF zoning
districts. If we increased the maximum FAR by 0.30 in the TSF to 0.65
and by 0.45 in the USF to 1.25, then 75 percent of homes in each
district would conform to the requirement. ■ TSF ■ USF
Changing the allowable FAR in these districts to match the real world
conditions would enable households to add living space equivalent to
their neighbors. If coupled with other changes, higher FARs would
also enable new homes. In addition, both the DMU and UMU have
maximum FARs of 4.0. Allowing higher FARs in the DMU and UMU
would enable buildings, like the Board-approved project at 160
Middlesex Street to avoid needing a Variance to build a five-story
building with 24 apartments.

TSF = Traditional Neighborhood Single-Family
USF = Urban Neighborhood Single-Family

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 19

3. Increase Maximum Allowed Building Heights and Stories 4. Eliminate or Reduce Off-Street Parking Minimums
Allowing more housing types in more districts may not lead to many Parking is expensive to build and maintain. The average surface
new homes if a building cannot be taller than 32-ft. and 2.5 stories. For parking space costs $5-10,000 to construct and the average garage
example, the four-family missing middle housing type may not fit in space costs $25,000-50,000. 23 Parking also occupies a lot of land that
that constrained envelope. In the first year since Minneapolis legalized could become housing. UCLA Professor Donald Shoup calculated that
triplexes citywide, the City has only issued three building permits for the average parking space plus its drive aisle occupies 300-350 sq. ft.
them. A director at the Minneapolis Area Realtors association relayed of space, so 600-700 sq. ft. for 2 parking spaces. 24 This space for
the challenge: “‘the underlying code was still written with single- parking can exceed the size of the home and increases the square
family homes in mind. Height restrictions are the same’” (emphasis footage that a household is on the hook to rent, thereby increasing the
added). 21 Writing at Vox, Matthew Yglesias noted the potential for total rental costs—whether or not the household owns a car. In
unleashing two late 19th century technologies—Bessemer steel and addition, many of these off-street spaces are unnecessary.
elevators—to fit more homes on the same plot of land by building
up. 22 We are not ready to recommend new height limits, but revisiting MAPC found that 30 percent of parking spaces were empty overnight
the existing ones is an important step. at nearly 200 multifamily residential buildings and that affordable
housing developments averaged only 0.55 cars per household. 25 Most,
but not all households have access to a car in Lowell. Eighteen percent
of households do not have a car and an additional 40 percent only have
access to one. 26 In virtually all zoning districts, the requirement is two
spaces per household or 0.75 spaces per bedroom, whichever is
greater. For 60 percent of households, this requirement is too high.

Requiring off-street parking, often in excess of actual demand, covers

more land in asphalt and helps to ensure affordable parking but
expensive housing. Recognizing this cost, Cities like Buffalo, NY 27;
Hartford, CT;28 and Edmonton, AB29 have recently eliminated all
mandatory parking minimums. Instead of using zoning to limit the
number of homes per lot as a tool to regulate parking, we could instead
regulate parking directly. Recently, the State awarded us a Housing
Choice grant to conduct a citywide parking study. v The study will
evaluate pricing, residential parking passes, zoning requirements, and
result in recommendations for commercial corridors and neighborhood
streets. This study will inform potential changes to the parking

Making parking studies eligible for Housing Choice grants underscores the connection
between parking and housing. Further details are available at:

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 20

C. Table of Uses

The Article XII: Table of Uses specifies the types of homes that
builders can construct or convert in each zoning district. The four
reforms in this section would allow more types of homes in the
existing districts:

1. Allow multi-family homes of a certain size by right

2. Permit more housing in the Regional Retail (RR) district
3. Allow manufactured (mobile) homes
4. Allow More Single Room Occupancy (SRO) housing

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 21

1. Allow Multi-Family Homes of a Certain Size by Right

Ten zoning districts permit multi-family housing with four or more could allow multi-family homes with four or fewer units by right.
units. vi To encourage denser housing, some of these districts prohibit Doing so would simplify converting existing duplexes into triplexes
smaller buildings or require Special Permits to construct developments and triplexes into fourplexes. Coupled with changes to the dimensional
with fewer units. For example, the Suburban Neighborhood Multi- requirements, eliminating the Special Permit for missing middle
Family (SMF) zoning district requires Special Permits for any project housing would generate incremental increases in the number of homes
with three or fewer units, but allows projects with four or more units in the same neighborhoods where these types of homes already exist
by right. However, in most cases the code requires Special Permits for today.
proposals to build three or more units on one lot. For example,
building or converting to a three-family in the Traditional
Neighborhood Multi-Family (TMF) zoning district requires a Special
Permit from the Planning Board. Special Permits signal that the code
allows a particular use, but that extra scrutiny is necessary to ensure
that the specific site is appropriate for that use.

The downside of Special Permits is that they add time, expense, and
uncertainty to projects, which means that many projects never start. At
the fastest, the Planning or Zoning Board approval process takes two
months. That timeline allows for submission prior to the hearing to
meet public notice requirements and the 20-day statutory appeal period
following a decision. Discussing the project at more than one hearing
lengthens this process. The two-thirds supermajority required to obtain
a Special Permit creates the uncertainty factor. On each Board, the
supermajority means that applicants must receive at least a 4-1
affirmative vote. Following a vote, the risk of appeal adds further
uncertainty and opportunity to delay or prevent a project.

The delay and uncertainty prior to applying for a building permit can
make financing small-scale, missing middle type projects challenging
for local builders.30 In addition, a homeowner looking to add a third
unit to their basement or attic will often shy away from the daunting
prospect of seeking permission from a land use board. Reevaluating
the trigger for Special Permits can help to mitigate these challenges
and foster more small-scale housing production. For example, the code
The districts are the SMF, SMU, TMF, TMU, NB, UMU, DMU, HRC, and INST. The HRC
district only allows housing with seven or more units on one lot.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 22

2. Permit More Housing in the Regional Retail (RR) District

The Regional Retail (RR) zoning district is a primarily commercial be able to work, shop, and eat at the neighborhood’s businesses
district with an auto-oriented development pattern. Today, the Zoning without needing to travel from a distant home. When revising the RR
Code only permits two types of long-term housing: senior congregate district, we would need to deliberate on the maximum number of
housing and buildings with one to two apartments above a non- stories/heights, apartments, and off-street parking requirements. For
residential use on the ground floor. Since almost all of the customers projects requiring land use board approval, we could recommend
and employees need to travel to these businesses, this largely conditioning approval on building better sidewalks, adding street
exclusively commercial district generates many more car trips than furniture, and installing bus shelters.
would be necessary if the buildings also included residences.

Allowing more housing in the district could still preserve the

commercial character by requiring that housing only exist on the
second floor or above and that non-residential uses remain on the
ground floor. Traveling down the RR corridors reveals many one-story
buildings that could satisfy this requirement by adding a story or two
of apartments to new upper floors. The photo and rendering below
show one way to convert these one-story shopping centers into two- or
three-story buildings with housing on the upper floors.

RR zoning does not allow replacing the parking and vacant lots (left) with the 45 homes
shown in the above proposal (right)

One-story commercial building on Chelmsford Street today with hypothetical residences

above in a RR zoning district. Photo © Google Streetview, rendering by DPD

Mixing residential and commercial would also advance Professor

Carlos Moreno’s vii concept of the “15-minute city” which aims to
provide most daily needs within a short walk from home. 31 Instead of
adding to our traffic congestion, residents of the improved RR would

Carlos Moreno is a Professor at Sorbonne University and the Mayor of Paris’ Special
Representative for Smart Cities.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 23

3. Allow Manufactured (Mobile) Homes 4. Allow More Single Room Occupancy (SRO)

In August 2016, the Council passed an ordinance that banned Single-room occupancy (SRO) is a type of housing in which people
manufactured (mobile) homes citywide. In that same year, the number rent individual bedrooms within a building that has common kitchens,
of mobile homes sold nationally increased 15 percent compared to the bathrooms, and other living areas. The common names for SROs are
previous year. Part of the recent popularity is the cost. A mobile home rooming or boarding houses. In pop culture, SROs are common.
averages “$292,600 less than a site-built home.” 32 Stigmas against Klaatu rents a room in a DC boarding house in The Day the Earth
mobile homes have blocked new mobile home communities. However, Stood Still. Arnold lives in his grandparents’ boarding house in the
researchers have found that mobile home communities had the “lowest animated Nickelodeon show Hey Arnold! Yet, outside of film and TV,
rate of violent crime calls for service” compared to other types of SROs have received a reputation for antisocial behavior.
housing for people at similar income levels. 33 Sarah Baird writing for
Curbed notes that mobile home communities use “collective identity Since WWII, most American cities have made SROs illegal or greatly
and (relative) close proximity as a communal safety net” and often limited the areas where people can build them. 35 Today, we allow
serve specific communities such as LGBT+ individuals and people SROs in just seven zoning districts and only by Special Permit. viii
ages 55 and older.34 Banning SROs has not eliminated them or the affordable housing
niche that they fulfill. The savings compared to a full-size apartment
can be remarkable. An individual in the Bronx, NY paid the equivalent
of $388 per month for an illegal SRO. 36 We have illegal SROs in
Lowell too. In 2019, Development Services cited eight illegal SROs.
Of those, only one was in a district that provided a pathway to
legalization. The other seven demonstrate a demand for this type of
affordable housing, but by preventing their construction, we push them
into the shadows where serious life safety risks can abound. By
legalizing them, we can both provide affordable housing and ensure
that the residents have a safe place to live.

To avoid the antisocial behavior that has occurred at SROs, we can

revise the regulations to require live-in superintendents and
appropriate common areas based on the number of units. The status
Cluster of mobile “tiny” homes in Northeast DC. © Taufiq Media quo is untenable because each time we play whack-a-mole with a new
illegal SRO, we send tenants into potentially less safe conditions as
We do not have ample open land for largescale mobile home they look for alternative, affordable housing.
communities. Such a development pattern is also not appropriate for
the 5th-largest City in Massachusetts and one where land is
increasingly at a premium. However, allowing relatively small clusters
of mobile homes on smaller lots is certainly one way to use zoning to
facilitate affordable housing construction.
The districts are SMU, TMU, NB, UMF, UMU, DMU and INST.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 24

D. New Ordinances

The preceding reforms would modify existing sections of the

Zoning Code. In contrast, the five reforms in this section would
introduce new concepts to the Code:

1. Allow accessory dwelling units

2. Issue zoning amnesty for illegal units
3. Adopt an ordinance to permit use variances
4. Pass an inclusionary zoning ordinance
5. Adopt an affordable housing overlay

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 25

1. Allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs)

Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) is the official term for apartments On two recent occasions, the Council has declined to adopt an ADU
built within a primary dwelling or in a separate detached building. ordinance. In 2006, staff submitted an ordinance that would have
Alternative names include in-law apartments, granny flats, and allowed ADUs by special permit in the three exclusively single-family
carriage houses. The rendering on the right from Saint Paul, MN’s districts. ix In 2017, the Zoning Subcommittee tabled a narrow ADU
Planning Department shows possible locations of ADUs. ordinance that would have limited ADUs to owner-occupied, single-
family homes for immediate family members only. Many communities
Where adopted, communities typically regulate the maximum allowed in Greater Boston allow ADUs.
size and locations of the ADU. Some communities regulate who can
live in an ADU (e.g., immediate family members) or require that the
owner reside in the primary dwelling or ADU. Currently, we allow
ADUs as an accessory use by Special Permit from the Zoning Board in
the Urban Neighborhood Single-Family (USF) zoning district.
However, the undefined term only appears in the Table of Accessory
Uses and a review of the Zoning Board applications reveals that no
one has applied to build one.

A well-designed ADU ordinance has several benefits. As MAPC

reports, ADUs permit seniors to age-in-place, provide choices for
smaller households, offer low-cost housing for young adults, give
homeowners a source of long-term rental income, are naturally
occurring affordable housing, enable incremental increases in housing
without greatly affecting neighborhood character, and attract people of
different backgrounds who can add to the vibrancy of the local
economy. 37 ADUs have received significant attention in other high-
cost housing markets.
Image from the City of Saint Paul, MN
In 2017, California adopted an ordinance that allowed ADUs statewide
and refined the ordinance in 2020 to reduce regulatory hurdles and to In 2018, the Pioneer Institute evaluated the 100 communities of
permit up to two ADUs on each property. 38 Portland, OR has a Greater Boston and found that 37 permitted ADUs for rent, 31 allowed
permissive ADU ordinance that allows them in all residential and temporary ADUs for family members, and 32 did not allow any
commercial districts, enables them to be up to 75% of the living area ADUs. 40 However, in communities that allowed ADUs, the strict
of the primary dwelling unit or 800 sq. ft., and do not require requirements meant that each municipality only averaged 2.5 new
additional off-street parking. As a result, Portland had permitted over
2,000 ADUs from 2010-2018. 39
The districts were the Suburban Neighborhood Single-Family (SSF), Traditional

Neighborhood Single-Family (TSF), and Urban Neighborhood Single-Family (USF).

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 26

2. Issue Zoning Amnesty for Illegal Units

ADUs per year. The author concluded, “Every municipality should Development Services investigates new reports of suspected illegal
allow ADUs to be added to owner-occupied single-family houses and housing units every week. When we show up at the door, the residents
to be rented out” with the potential to house thousands of people rarely realize that their rental is illegal. To them, the room or
through a barely noticeable change. apartment is just home. Barring zoning restrictions, many of these
units could become safe housing. However, when we find an illegal
These examples underscore the decision points for ADUs: size, two-family in a single-family district or an illegal third unit in a two-
number, districts, parking, attached/detached, owner-occupied, and by family district the owners have no pathway to convert the spaces into
right or special permit. Ordinances that are more permissive will legal residences. Such visits by Development Services staff ultimately
naturally lead to more ADUs, so the Council would need to determine leads to fewer total housing units, thereby exacerbating the existing
which criteria would be appropriate for Lowell. Communities that housing shortage.
have adopted ADU ordinances that produce new homes, like Portland,
have iterated and continually revised their ordinances to achieve Establishing an amnesty program for illegal units can bring these
desired outcomes and respond to unforeseen barriers. If the Council residences out of the shadows and into building code compliance.
now believes that the benefits of an ADU ordinance are worth Since these illegal units already exist, offering amnesty will not lead to
reevaluating, then we have a new draft ready to start the discussion. a significant increase in housing. However, the program can preserve
existing housing. The program could also avoid tragic episodes where
an emergency leads to avoidable injury because undiscovered illegal
apartments do not have adequate means of egress, insulation, etc. To
avoid a scramble to create illegal units, the program could specify
needing to demonstrate longstanding occupancy and to satisfy all
current life/safety and building code requirements.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 27

3. Adopt an Ordinance to Permit Use Variances 4. Pass an Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance

Under state law, to grant a variance for a use that the zoning code does Inclusionary Zoning (IZ) is a tool that leverages private developments
not permit we must first adopt an ordinance that permits “use to create new income-restricted housing. As of 2013, the U.S.
variances.” We do not allow use variances, so an owner of a two- Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that over
family building in the Traditional Neighborhood Two-Family (TTF) 400 jurisdictions had adopted some form of IZ. 42 The tool has become
zoning district does not have a pathway to convert the building into a increasingly popular, as tightening budgets have reduced the capacity
three-family home. We frequently disappoint homeowners in such for the public sector to construct income-restricted housing directly.
situations who may see three-family (or larger) buildings on their
block. Three-family buildings in the TTF surprise owners, but they are The principle of IZ is that either by providing incentives or through
more surprised that they cannot convert their homes to match their new requirements, private developers will build new income-restricted
neighbors. However, as the boundaries of zoning districts change, housing as a percentage of the total number of new units on a site. The
countless examples exist of uses that are legally preexisting, non- incentive approach, would allow a developer to build taller, bigger, or
conforming. If an owner of a three-family building in the TTF more units depending on the number of income-restricted units a
converted it to a two-family, then after two years they would lose project includes. In contrast, an IZ requirement mandates that for
preexisting, non-conforming status and the building could never again projects of a certain size, a developer must include income-restricted
become a three-family. A use variance ordinance would provide a units and/or pay in lieu of units to a fund used to construct or subsidize
narrow pathway in these instances to allow two-family buildings to income-restricted units. The exact approach varies considerably by
become three-family buildings, etc. community. If done correctly, the density benefits for adding income-
restricted housing offsets the costs of constructing that housing at
The upside of use variances is that they provide flexibility, which may below market value. If done incorrectly, the costs to the developer do
be valuable in-between overhauling the zoning code and map. The risk not offset the benefits and may suppress homebuilding. 43
is that the ordinance would not only apply to housing, but to any use.
If adopted, applicants would still need to demonstrate that they meet Since 2000, Boston has had an IZ ordinance that applies to projects
the three criteria for a variance, including that the soil, shape, or with 10 or more units. In most cases, 13 percent of the units in the
topography creates a special hardship that necessitates the variance. In project would need to be income-restricted within the same building,
one example, the Essex County Court of Appeals upheld a decision by at a nearby site, or via a payment in lieu of units into the City’s
Rockport’s Zoning Board to grant a use variance so that the applicant Inclusionary Development Policy Fund. As of last year, builders had
could construct a multi-family building in a single-family district. 41 created nearly 2,600 income-restricted units and the fund sponsored
The Court agreed with the Zoning Board that the location of the lot over 1,400 more. 44 Similar to Boston, the City of Beverley requires 10
along the coast would make building a single-family home infeasible percent of units in projects with 10 or more buildings to be income-
due to the cost of building a seawall, complex foundation, etc., thereby restricted and eligible for inclusion in the City’s subsidized housing
presenting a special hardship. Notably, Rockport still permits use inventory. Builders may also contribute a payment-in-lieu of housing,
variances today. x with the payment ranging from $111,300 to $1.3 million based on the
neighborhood. 45 The Council could evaluate these examples from
other communities and determine whether to proceed with an incentive
The statement in the Zoning Code, as updated through September 2014 is “This Zoning or requirement-based system and the specific triggers and benefits.
Bylaw specifically permits the Board of Appeals to grant variances for use in any district.”

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 28

5. Adopt an Affordable Housing Overlay

One common critique of new housing is that it is luxury and

unfordable to existing residents. Opponents to a market rate project
may argue that they would support the new housing if the builder
proposed 100 percent income-restricted units. Cambridge decided to
target that argument directly. After a two-year process, the city passed
an Affordable Housing Overlay in October 2020 that allows multi-
family projects of up to four stories by right in all residential zoning
districts and up to seven stories in business districts. 46

The overlay allows incremental increases in massing, building heights,

and relaxes other dimensional requirements for projects in which units
are affordable up to 100 percent of the area median income. 47 The
buildings may also include non-residential uses on the ground floors
and the code does not stipulate a minimum parking requirement.
However, if the project does not provide at least 0.4 parking spaces per
unit, then the builder would need to submit a Transportation Demand
Management plan. xi This new overlay confronts opposition to new
housing based solely on affordability. Since the Cambridge City
Council just adopted the change, we do not yet know whether it will
achieve its objective. However, the Cities of Somerville and Newton
are now exploring similar ordinances. 48

A transportation demand management plan defines polices and investments that a project

will make to discourage people from owning a car and/or driving alone.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 29

E. Revise Sections

The seven possible zoning changes outlined in this final section

would apply existing progressive housing ordinances to more
buildings and districts, clarify which types of projects need
Planning Board review, and redefine the family to acknowledge
the variety of household types:

1. Amend the definition of a family

2. Revise Section 8.1 to again include all large buildings
3. Increase the threshold for site plan review
4. Revise the planned residential development ordinance
5. Reevaluate the downtown smart growth overlay district
6. Delete the neighborhood character special permit

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 30

1. Amend the Definition of a Family

The Zoning Code specifies that only one family may live in each individuals are related. The wide variety of family types also means
home. The code further defines family to determine who counts. Most that the existing restriction might discriminate against non-nuclear
zoning codes include a number of unrelated individuals in the families, which are a supermajority of households. Finally, when we
definition of a family, which accounts for unmarried people living are able to hold owners to this requirement, we may exacerbate the
with significant others, young adults who are cohabitating, au pairs housing shortage by emptying bedrooms that otherwise meet all
and live-in staff, and other housing arrangements. Recognizing these building and sanitary code requirements.
types of living arrangements is vital, as AARP has found that “only 20
percent of American households are nuclear families.” 49 Still, each Past Zoning Subcommittee conversations about the definition of a
community defines family in a different way. family have focused on the risks of a broader definition leading to
homes with four or more undergraduate students, all with cars. While
Currently, our Zoning Code allows an unlimited number of related this scenario is possible, the existing definition of family does not
individuals to live together in a home, provided they meet all relevant preclude an unlimited number of related adults and children from
sanitary and building code requirements. Our Code further specifies sharing a home and all owning cars. Competition for on-street parking
that up to three unrelated individuals can constitute a family and share can be fierce in some neighborhoods. However, instead of restricting
a home. This restriction is a decrease that occurred during the last the size and types of households to reduce on-street parking demand,
overhaul of our Code. Prior to 2004, up to four unrelated individuals we should reevaluate and extend residential parking districts. xiii In
could constitute a family. short, if our concern is parking, then we should regulate parking.

We reviewed the definition of family in 23 cities and towns in

Massachusetts, which we selected based on overall population,
density, and proximity to Lowell. Six communities had definitions that
were more restrictive, six allowed the same number of unrelated
individuals, and 11 allowed more unrelated individuals to live together
and be a family. The table on the next page shows a summary for these
11 communities: xii

Broadening the definition of family would legalize many of the

existing housing arrangements in Lowell. Routinely, our Board
Enforcement Agent must cite property owners for renting residences to
more than three unrelated individuals. However, enforcing this
requirement is challenging because the City does not have a
mechanism for assessing relationship statuses to determine whether
Aside from extending residential parking districts, we could charge a graduated fee for each

The six communities with the same restriction are Cambridge, Lawrence, Quincy,
permit. For example, the first permit could be free, the second could cost $100, and the third
Springfield, Winthrop, and Worcester. The six communities that are more restrictive are $500, and so on. The higher fee would encourage more residents to park off-street or
Brockton, Haverhill, Malden, New Bedford, Revere, and Salem. discourage them from choosing a residence if they had hoped to bring a car and park for free.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 31

Number of Unrelated Individuals Included in the Definition of Family by Municipality

Municipality # Unrelated Notes Population Density

Arlington * No limit if they attest to being a household 42,800 8,200
Boston * No limit, but only up to four undergraduate students may form a household 692,600 14,300
Gloucester 5 30,400 1,200
Everett 4 Four adults plus up to four related children 46,500 13,600
Somerville 4 - 81,400 19,700
Chelsea 4 - 39,700 17,900
Brookline 4 - 59,300 3,300
Fall River 4 - 89,500 2,700
Lynn 4 - 94,300 8,800
Watertown 4 - 35,900 9,000
Newton 3 Related by blood plus up to three boarders 88,400 5,000
Lowell 3 - 111,000 8,100

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 32

2. Revise Section 8.1 to Again Include all Large Buildings

Section 8.1 enables developers to convert certain large existing 236 Fairmount Street in Belvidere is an over 14,000 sq. ft. single-
structures into more residences than the underlying zoning allows. family home in the Suburban Neighborhood Single-Family (SSF)
When first adopted, this section allowed developers to convert any zoning district. Built for a titan of industry, the building may now be
large residential structure that was at least 60 years old into two or unwieldy for a single family to occupy and maintain. Re-extending
more dwelling units by Special Permit. The proposal had to meet Section 8.1 to encompass large residential structures could help to
conditions on parking, open space, building alteration, and minimum preserve this early 1880’s stone building by converting the interior into
unit size. During the 2004 overhaul, the Council restricted this section two or more units. Similarly, the 13,000 sq. ft. and vacant 1890’s
to large structures that were previously part of a mill complex, served building at 129 Branch Street is difficult to rehabilitate under current
a religious or educational purpose, or used as a fire station. Despite zoning as it is within a restrictive two-family zoning district. Changing
trends toward smaller apartments, the change also increased the Section 8.1 to encompass comparable historic structures that were not
minimum unit sizes from 630 sq. ft. to 750 sq. ft. for studio or one- part of mills, religious institutions, schools, or fire stations would help
bedroom apartments and from 800 sq. ft. to 900 sq. ft. for two or more to transform blighted properties like 129 Branch Street and provide
bedroom apartments.50 In 2017, the ordinance changed again to define sorely needed housing.
large structures as those that are 5,000 sq. ft. or bigger.
If the Council extends Section 8.1 to large residential structures and
Several recent projects have obtained Special Permits under Section other buildings, we would need to evaluate appropriate thresholds. For
8.1 to deliver dozens of new homes. For example, a developer has example, over 430 homes in the SSF, TSF, USF, TTF, TMF, and UMF
converted the former Varnum School in Centralville into 30 units. This exceed 10,000 sq. ft. An additional 2,300 are 5,000 sq. ft. or larger. A
project would not have been possible without Section 8.1, as the subset of these are homes are at least 60 years old. Setting the
underlying zoning district is for two-family buildings. However, this minimum building size and age would mean more or fewer homes. For
pathway does not exist for many other large, historic buildings in the other large structures, we might exclude certain districts, such as Light
City. The photos below are just two of many examples. Industrial and General Industrial, as adding homes to those districts
may create avoidable conflicts between industry and residents. Finally,
we could modify the minimum unit sizes. 750 sq. ft. is huge for a
studio apartment and even exceeds the average size of a one-bedroom.
Each additional square foot translates into higher housing costs
through both rents based on size and by needing to amortize the cost of
converting the structure over fewer units. If the Council would like to
reconsider Section 8.1, then we have a draft ready to inform the

236 Fairmount Street (left) in the SSF and 129 Branch Street (right) in the TTF.
© Google Streetview

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 33

3. Increase the Threshold for Site Plan Review 4. Revise the Planned Residential Development Ordinance

Site Plan Review is a type of approval for evaluating and addressing Section 8.2 of the Zoning Code empowers the City Council to approve
building scale, site layout, transportation, stormwater, and other needs residential developments with less land required per lot in exchange
of certain large-scale or high impact projects. One of our current for shared open spaces. This Planned Residential Development (PRD)
triggers for Site Plan Review is constructing, exterior altering, ordinance is a narrow iteration of the Planned Unit Development
converting, or expanding any residential structure or structures with (PUD). While the PRD ordinance only allows single- and two-family
more than three dwelling units. Similar to the challenges presented by residential structures plus some educational or non-profit facilities, a
Special Permit approval, this trigger adds time, expense, and new PUD ordinance would enable mixed-use, multi-family projects.
uncertainty to all residential projects with four or more units—
including projects to add one unit to an existing three-family home. MGL Chapter 40A§9 specifies that PUDs must have the lesser of
60,000 sq. ft. of land area or five times the minimum lot size of the
Since nearly all multi-family residential projects require Board underlying zoning district. Our ordinance would then need to specify
approval via a Special Permit and/or Variance, we could raise the the conditions under which the permit granting authority could deem
threshold for Site Plan Review to focus on larger residential apartment the proposal “sufficiently advantageous” to deviate from the normal
buildings or condominiums without sacrificing an opportunity for requirements of the zoning district. Allowing a builder to deviate from
public and Board comment. Other communities already have higher the underlying zoning increases the value of a parcel.
thresholds. For example, the City of Brockton’s trigger is seven or
more dwelling units. In Boston, the trigger is 15 or more dwelling Since the potential benefit is considerable, PUD review involves
units. Increasing the threshold would not exempt builders from zoning negotiating community benefits and amenities that the project
requirements, such as setbacks and parking, and builders would still proponents will provide through direct construction or contributions to
need to receive full approval from Development Services under the targeted funds for specific projects. For example, the approval could
building and sanitary codes. In addition, the Fire Department would stipulate space for specific uses such as a grocery store or municipal
still evaluate the project for life/safety concerns, and the Engineering facility (e.g., school, library, police station, community center). The
Division, Water Utility, and Wastewater Utility would continue to negotiation could also address parks and recreation as well as
review and approve new paving, utility connections, and stormwater transportation needs. While, few large greenfield sites exist in the City,
interventions. many huge surface parking lots meet the criteria for a PUD. Adopting
this type of ordinance would create an incentive to redevelop those
sites into mixed-use developments that include housing.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 34

5. Reevaluate the Downtown Smart Growth Overlay District 6. Rescind the Neighborhood Character Special Permit

We are one of 41 municipalities in Massachusetts that have adopted a In 2006, the Council adopted Section 9.4 to require a Special Permit
smart growth overlay district. As authorized by MGL Ch. 40R, the from the Planning Board when a project will result in two or more
objective of these districts is to “create dense residential or mixed-use” dwelling units on a lot where at least one existed prior to the effective
development that includes “a high percentage of affordable housing date of the ordinance. This provision applies to any projects in the
units… located near transit stations, in areas of concentrated TTF, TMF, TMU, UMF, or UMU zoning districts regardless of
development such as existing city and town centers.” 51 whether or not constructing the additional dwelling unit would require
the builder to demolish the existing building.
In 2008, the MA Department of Housing and Community
Development approved our 2.5-acre Downtown Smart Growth Simply converting a single-family to a two-family in the TTF triggers
Overlay District that included just three former mill buildings. Today, this Special Permit, as does splitting a three-bedroom apartment into
these buildings include a mix of market rate and affordable housing single- and two-bedroom apartments in the UMU. For the reasons
units as well as the Lowell Community Health Center. described previously, this Special Permit again adds time, expense,
and uncertainty to housing projects.

While the provision ostensibly exists to protect neighborhood

character, the character of these five zoning districts is more likely to
include multi-family housing. Yet the ordinance strives to protect
single-family homes. As Professor Lance Freeman of Columbia
University has noted, appeals to neighborhood character often mean
excluding multi-family housing and the people who can afford to rent
or own those homes. 52 Removing this ordinance will not eliminate the
historic districts and dimensional requirements that regulate
construction, but they will remove at least one barrier to adding
incrementally more housing and welcoming more residents of different

Boundaries of the current Smart Growth Overlay District in green

With the former mills within the original overlay district fully
occupied, we could enlarge the existing boundaries to encompass new
infill opportunities and/or designate entirely new districts.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 35

7. Clarify Neighborhood Character Review

One of the criteria for Special Permit approval is how a project

advances the Master Plan’s goals for neighborhood character. In
instances where a site is within a historic district and is subject to the
approval of the Historic Board, this criterion can lead to disagreements
with the Planning and Zoning Boards about which entity has
jurisdiction over neighborhood character. The disagreement can then
lead to confusion for the applicant as they try to meet conflicting
requests. This confusion can delay projects.

To resolve this question of jurisdiction, the Council could amend the

ordinance to state that in historic districts, the Historic Board will be
primarily responsible for reviewing for neighborhood character.
Specifically, the Zoning Code lists four questions for the Special
Permit granting authority to consider and three of these should be the
exclusive purview of the Historic Board:

• How does this project protect and enhance the character of the
existing neighborhood? Successful projects should reflect the
density, the urban design, the setbacks, height, and landscaping
elements of surrounding buildings.

• How does this project provide for social, economic, or

community needs? [Reserved for Planning Board]

• Is the project consistent with the character, materials, and scale

of buildings in the vicinity?

• Does the project minimize the visual intrusion from visible

parking, storage, and other outdoor service areas viewed from
public ways and abutting residences?

The one question reserved for the Planning Board is less about the
shape, massing, and layout of the project, and therefore less relevant
for the Historic Board to review.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 36


In 2019, the City’s total revenue was nearly $4 billion.53xiv If Lowell

were a private company, the revenue would rank the city as bigger
than Domino’s Pizza ($3.4B), Twitter ($3B), and Univision ($2.8B). 54
These smaller companies invest in strategic planning to ensure their
business decisions lead to sustained growth and survival. Housing is
key to the portfolio of Lowell and zoning is an essential tool to
encourage or forestall housing changes. While we could implement
many of the simple changes without much further analysis, we should
follow the lead of Lynn and other Gateway Cities by investing in a
rigorous Housing Production Plan to identify specific changes—e.g.,
to zoning boundaries, dimensional requirements, and more—to ensure
that the changes are appropriate for us.55

Each time we adopt changes without this level of rigor by increasing

minimum lot sizes, extending single-family exclusivity, and banning
housing types we create ripple effects that prevent thousands of new
homes and new households from coming to Lowell. Not building those
homes translates into the higher housing costs and rent burdens that
most Lowellians experience today. To advance the goal of our master
plan and provide a range of safe, fair, high quality, and affordable
housing opportunities for residents of all backgrounds, we must
change the zoning code to deliver housing in the types and quantity
that meet our needs.

Massachusetts Division of Local Services: Municipal Databank. The sum of the tax levy,
state aid, local receipts, and all other sources of revenue.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 37

V. REFERENCES Town of Arlington warrant for special town meeting on November 16, 2020. Article 18:

Zoning bylaw amendment/improving residential inclusiveness, sustainability, and affordability

by ending single family zoning.
Hertz, D. “The illegal city of Somerville.” City Observatory. 15 June 2016.
Parolek, D. “Best practices for ending exclusive single-family zoning.” Public Square. 25
Feb. 2020.
2019 Greater Lowell Community Health Needs Assessment
Upper Merrimack Street/Pawtucket Street: Land use zoning analysis. Northern Middlesex
Glynn, C. and Casey, A. “Homelessness rises faster where rent exceeds a third of income.”
Council of Governments report. Aug. 2016.
Zillow Research. 11 Dec. 2018.
Jones, H. “Triplex building permits requested in Minneapolis this year: 3.” City Pages. 1
Li, X. “Do new housing units in your backyard raise your rents.” NYU Wagner and NYU
Sep. 2020.
Furman Center working paper. 26 Oct. 2019.
Ygelsias, M. “Why the elevator could be the next great disruptive technology.” Vox. 26 Sep.
Asquith, B.J., et al. “Supply shock versus demand shock: The local effects of new housing in
low-income areas.” Upjohn Institute Working Paper 19-316. Dec. 2019.
Cortright, J. “The price of parking.” City Observatory. 18 October 2016.
Mast, E. “The effect of new market-rate housing construction on the low-income housing
market.” Upjohn Institute Working Paper 19-307. 1 July 2019.
Shoup, D. (2017). The High Cost of Free Parking. Routledge.
MAPC Housing MA. Basic Housing Needs Assessment for Lowell, MA:
Hart, K., et. al. “Metro Boston: Perfect Fit Parking Initiative – Phase II Report.” MAPC. July 2019.
Calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates for
Calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates
2018, DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics. The percentage only includes households that for 2018, DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics.
are paying rent. 27
Poon, L. “Buffalo becomes first city to bid minimum parking goodbye.” CityLab. 9 Jan.
Calculated using the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates 2017.
from 2010-2018, DP04: Selected Housing Characteristics. Selected monthly owner costs are 28
Schmitt, A. “Hartford eliminates parking minimums citywide.” Streetsblog USA. 13 Dec.
the sum of payments for mortgages, deeds of trust, contracts to purchase, or similar debts on 2017.
the property; real estate taxes; fire, hazard, and floor insurance on the property. 29
“Edmonton city council votes to remove minimum parking requirements.” CBC News. 23
Lustgarten, A. “How climate migration will reshape America: Millions will be displaced. June 2020.
Where will the go?” New York Times. 15 Sep. 2020. 30
Steuteville, R. “‘Missing middle’ is key to housing America.” Public Square. 12 Aug. 2020.
Herriges, D. “What is traditional development?” Strong Towns. 14 June 2019. 31
Whittle, N. “Welcome to the 15-minute city.” Financial Times. 17 July 2020.
Crump, S., et al. (2020). Zoned out: why Massachusetts needs to legalize apartments near 32
Baird, S. “Mobile homeland: Whatever you call it—mobile home, trailer park,
transit. Boston Foundation and Brookings Institution report. manufactured housing—the retro living model is undergoing a renaissance.” Curbed. 13 Sep.
Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government 2017.
segregated America. Liveright. 33
Barthe, E.P., et al. “Trailer parks as hotbeds of crime: Fact or fiction?” Issues in Social
Baldassari, E. and Solomon, M. “The racist history of single-family home zoning.” KQED. Science. November 2014, 2(2):1.
5 Oct. 2020. 34
Baird, S. Curbed. 13 Sep. 2017.
Trickey, E. “How Minneapolis free itself from the stranglehold of single-family homes: 35
Lind, D. “Affordable housing is your spare bedroom.” New York Times. 12 June 2018.
Desperate to build more housing, the city just rewrote its decades-old zoning rules.” Politico
Magazine. 11 June 2019.
Ionova, M. “The $80-a-week, 60-square-foot housing solution that’s also totally illegal.”
Next City. 3 June 2013.
Anderson, M. “Portland just passed the best low-density zoning reform in US history.”
Sightline Institute. 11 Aug. 2020.
Goyes, F., et al. (2018). Living Little. Metropolitan Area Planning Council report.
Hillard, J. “In Newton, proposal would end single-family only zoning in large swathes of
Leavitt, D. “The 12 most critical 2020 ADU rule changes for California.” Modative. 14 Jan.
city” Boston Globe. 23 June 2020. 2020.
Goyes, F., et al. (2018).

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 38

Dain, A. (2018). The state of zoning for accessory dwelling units. Pioneer Institute white
paper No. 184.
Kirkwood v. Board of Appeals of Rockport (1984), cited by Bobrowski, M. (1993).
Handbook of Massachusetts Land Use and Planning Law. Aspen Publishers, Inc.
Exploring inclusionary zoning’s effect on affordable housing. U.S. Department of Housing
and Urban Development. 25 Jan. 2013.
Bertolet, D. and Durning, A. “Inclusionary zoning: The most promising—or counter-
productive—of all housing policies.” Sightline Institute. 29 Nov. 2016.
Inclusionary Development Policy: 2019 Update. Boston Planning and Development Agency
policy-2019-update. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
Inclusionary housing documents. City of Beverley website:
documents/. Accessed 8 Oct. 2020.
Shaw, R. “Cambridge passes citywide affordable housing overlay: A new national model.”
Beyond Chron. 6 Oct. 2020.
100%-Affordable housing zoning overlay. City of Cambridge website: Accessed
13 Oct. 2020.
Brasuell, J. “Rezoning every residential neighborhood in Cambridge for affordable
apartment buildings.” Planetizen. 13 Oct. 2020.
Broikos, C. and Stanton, M. (eds.) (2017). Making room: Housing for a changing America.
AARP report.
Balint, N. “As apartments are shrinking, Seattle tops New York with the smallest rentals in
the U.S.” RENTCafé blog. 30 Nov. 2018.
Chapter 40R. MA Department of Housing and Community Development website. Accessed 10 Oct. 2020.
Brown, G. “How discussions of ‘neighborhood character’ reinforce structural racism.”
Rewire. 17 July 2020.
Massachusetts Division of Local Services: Municipal Databank. The sum of the tax levy,
state aid, local receipts, and all other sources of revenue.
Fortune 500 company revenues data for 2019.
Forman, B., Matias, J., and Corley, T. “How Lynn is revamping its housing strategy.”
Gateways Podcast by the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute. 22 Oct. 2020.

Zoning for Housing in Lowell | 39