A correction has been added to this story.
IN NEWTON, long-time city councilor Deb Crossley considered herself part of an effort to convert the values of the liberal Boston suburb into tangible policy. In the face of a dire regional housing shortage, where the constricted supply of homes is driving housing costs out of reach of most families, Crossley has helped lead a campaign to adopt sweeping new zoning rules that would put Newton on track to allow a significant increase in housing construction in and around neighborhood business districts.
“I was willing to put myself out there on this, because I believe it was an important effort the city needs to undertake,” Crossley said.
Newton voters believed otherwise.
In last week’s low-turnout municipal election, they tossed Crossley, a seven-term incumbent, out of office, along with two other councilors who supported the “Newton for Everyone” housing proposal. Opponents of the plan are taking their seats, as well as filling three open seats that were up for grabs. One local news outlet called the drubbing delivered to housing proponents a “bloodbath.”
The zoning proposal’s future is now in doubt, with city councilors set to deliberate next steps on Wednesday night and Newton’s mayor urging them to listen to the message from voters.
Driven by high demand and low supply, the housing crisis has put pressure on state and local officials to take action. But what action to take, and how far to go in the push for more housing invariably invites the kind of pitched battle that is playing out in leafy Newton, a high-income community of 87,000 known for its good schools and easy access into Boston. It could be a preview of a fight that will repeat across Greater Boston as pressure mounts on communities to be part of the regional housing solution.
The challenge facing any effort to address the state’s housing shortage often comes down to a simple truth, said Katherine Levine Einstein, an associate professor of political science at Boston University. “People don’t like housing being built near them,” she said. “They don’t like change. They see it as a threat to their property values.”
For Crossley, a 69-year-old architect – and homeowner – who lives a short walk from the MBTA Green Line’s Riverside branch, support for more housing is personal. Her two children, both in their 30s, are part of a generation getting squeezed out of town, and sometimes even out of state, by soaring housing costs.
Crossley’s daughter and son-in-law moved to Rhode Island, since their one-bedroom Newton condo wasn’t big enough for their growing family, and they couldn’t afford to trade up locally in a community where the median sale price of a home is now $1.4 million. Meanwhile, her son, a chemistry teacher at Newton South High School, is back living in the family home so he can afford to keep teaching in Newton.
“We’re happy to have him but it’s not sustainable,” Crossley said. “Newton is not going to be able to get a next generation of teachers if we don’t begin to turn this around.”
Two years ago, the state adopted a new law requiring the more than 170 cities and towns served by the MBTA to zone for higher levels of multi-family housing close to T train or bus lines. The proposal backed by Crossley and other city councilors would go beyond the requirements of the MBTA Communities law, allowing new, dense housing development in areas not covered by the legislation.
Fran Yerardi, an opponent of the more ambitious housing plan, said voters made clear that they don’t want something that goes beyond the requirements of the new state law. He recalled a meeting in which Crossley pointed to the upcoming election and reiterated her support for the proposal. “She dared us,” he said.
City officials proposed the new zoning regulations that include the commercial areas and surrounding residential areas, with the goal of making it easier to build housing of various types and sizes, and adding foot traffic to local businesses. The proposal goes beyond what’s called for under the MBTA law by covering a dozen local business districts, rather than the six that fall under the MBTA law.
Yerardi, 56, said the Nonantum section of Newton, once known for its manufacturing sector, would be “clobbered by density” under the city proposal. [An earlier version of the story incorrectly listed him as a Nonantum resident. He lives in West Newton.]
Newton has 13 distinct neighborhood business districts, shaped by rail, rivers, and churches. The current zoning for those areas hasn’t been substantially changed since 1987, “when the ability to build multi-family housing and mixed-use development was drastically reduced or eliminated,” according to a recent Newton Department of Planning and Development memo. Residential units were prohibited above retail establishments, multifamily housing required permitting, and the village centers were limited to a two-story maximum. “Those three things are a killer,” Crossley said of the existing restrictions.
While a zoning overhaul to allow denser housing development has been discussed for more than a decade, a more concerted push started three years ago. Then the MBTA Communities law came along in 2021, pushing Newton and 176 other communities to adopt zoning that allows for multifamily housing, meaning three or more units, to be built by-right close to public transit stations.
Newton, which has several commuter rail stations in addition to seven Green Line stations within its borders, faces a December 31 deadline to comply with the new law, as do other communities like Brookline and Milton.
Yerardi, who for 20 years owned an Italian-American restaurant in Nonantum and now is involved in real estate, pushed back on the notion that the candidates who triumphed last week completely oppose more housing. Just one person who won, he said, wants to outright block the MBTA law.
Yerardi said he backs adding what he calls workforce housing – homes for cops, firefighters, and teachers – to Nonantum’s old manufacturing district, just outside the village center. “We’re the blue-collar area of Newton,” he said. “If you did that, the neighborhood would support it. We’d dig the foundation for you.”
But he said city leaders were trying to force on them the plan with more housing in the village center, which would lead to the creation of $2 million condos.
Newton’s 24-member city council is set to meet Wednesday night to discuss whether to move ahead with its proposal, or to stick just with what the MBTA law requires. “If they go into the meeting on Wednesday and ignore what the voters just told them, there will be a referendum,” Yerardi said. “It’ll be bad. The city is going to be in turmoil for the next six months.”
If the city plan is adopted and enough citizens gather signatures and send the zoning rules to a special election, Newton could see a repeat of the fall election, complete with both sides trading accusations about misinformation.
Before the November 7 election, Yerardi helped several residents and business owners set up an organization opposed to the new city zoning called Newton for Everyone Political Action Committee. But there was a problem: The name was already taken by a coalition of clergy, the Charles River Chamber, and civic activists that supports more housing in village centers.
The pro-housing coalition decried the PAC, as well as a PAC affiliate’s signs that showed high-rises with a diagonal red line running through them. City leaders and the coalition argued the village centers zoning proposal has only some locations reaching four and a half stories in height, and a limited number that could go up to five and a half.
Yerardi argued more density would be on its way under the proposal, and it would consist of multimillion-dollar condos that in his view would destroy the fabric of the neighborhood. “The misinformation is coming from City Hall,” he said. “Nonantum is not even on an MBTA line, but we’re getting more density than Chestnut Hill?” he added, referring to one of Newton’s tonier neighborhoods. “That’s not right.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller on Tuesday night blasted out an email pointing to the election results. She hadn’t been on the ballot, but she said going ahead with new zoning for all village centers “clearly makes a lot of Newtonians uncomfortable,” and backed voting for just what complies with the MBTA Communities law.
Looking back on the election that led to her ouster, Crossley said the opposition was “well-organized” – but she called their message warning of high-rises deceitful and said most residents have no objection to the three or four story buildings the housing plan calls for.
Though she won’t be in office anymore, Crossley said she’ll keep pushing for Newton to go further in making room for more housing. “I am doing this because the community that I love, and was so wonderful to raise my kids in, is not going to be there for the next generations in the same way,” she said.