Housing and Community Planning

Activity around planning, housing, and community and economic development varies among municipalities, depending on both the size of the community and leadership. Planning boards, zoning boards of appeals, conservation commissions, community preservation committees, historic commissions, master plan committees, and open space and recreation plan committees, along with municipal staff and/or regional planning agency (RPA) assistance, conduct this work.

Regional Planning Agencies

All communities have resources available from their respective RPAs, state-designated entities providing a range of planning and other technical assistance around transportation, housing, historic preservation, zoning, public health, emergency preparedness, environmental protection, economic development, municipal services, and other areas. 

Local Land Use Boards 

Planning Board – This is an elected board in towns and a mayor-appointed board in cities with 5 – 9 members to serve 3 or 5 years. The number and terms are set by local laws. Planning boards are required by law to have Master Plans which must address, but are not limited to:  Land Use, Housing, Economic Development, Natural & Cultural Resources, Open Space and Recreation, Services & Facilities, Circulation (Transportation), and the Implementation Program. These master plans lay the groundwork for developing zoning by-laws/ordinances, regulations, and other frameworks to both protect and manage resources (water, land) and target areas for housing and economic development.

Zoning Boards of Appeals – This appointed board reviews and approves applications for relief by special permit and by variance from the requirements of zoning by-laws/ordinances. Applicants are granted hearings before a 3-member board and a unanimous vote is required for an appeal to be granted. If additional members have been appointed, they may substitute for a regular member if the chair so designates and they meet certain prior attendance requirements on a matter before the board.

Conservation Commission – These appointed commissions have 3–7 members with 3-year terms. Town meeting or city council sets the number of members.  In addition to enforcing federal and state wetlands laws, a city or town may adopt local wetlands protection laws.  Authority: The Conservation Commission Act (MGL C.40, s.8C) for open space protection; the Wetlands Protection Act (MGL C.131, s.40) for protecting wetlands and waterways; and the home rule provisions of the state constitution for non-zoning wetlands bylaws.


The primary opportunities local governments have for providing housing is through the adoption of zoning laws that incentivize housing development, providing funds through adoption of the Community Preservation Act or with Community Development Block Grant funding (CDBG), and creating a housing trust. They may also have land or property that could be developed for housing. The Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities (EOHLC)  has been re-created to emphasize housing as a priority policy area. 

Local Housing Authorities

LHAs are separate entities with their own boards. The boards are comprised of elected and appointed members as determined by state law and city/town charter. They all have a governor appointee and a tenant appointee. They manage low-income housing for families, seniors, and people with disabilities. Some provide Section 8 rental vouchers for low-income tenants.

North Central Mass Housing Authorities

Municipalities with less than 10% affordable housing (housing eligible for inclusion on the Subsidized Housing Inventory) may be subject to development proposals that can circumvent local zoning if 20-25% of the units have affordability restrictions. 

MBTA Communities

A law adopted in 2021 requires cities and towns served by the transit agency have at least one zoning district “of reasonable size” within a half-mile of a commuter rail, subway or bus station or ferry terminal, where multi-family housing is allowed. The 177 communities that fell under the law were required to submit an action plan to the state in January 2022. Communities adjacent to commuter transit communities and those under a certain population level have different requirements. Subsequent updates have been made to the law through regulations and communities not in compliance face penalties. MBTA Communities map

North Central Mass MBTA Communities

  • Fitchburg - Commuter rail. Fitchburg believes its current zoning meets the requirements of this law.

Housing Trusts  

Housing trusts have become more common as communities seek ways to utilize new funding resources through the Community Preservation Act, state grants, federal funds, or to make appropriations through the municipal budget. A local housing trust allows municipalities to collect funds for affordable housing, segregate them out of the general municipal budget into a trust fund, and use the funds for local initiatives to create and preserve affordable housing. Examples of activities: Provide financial support for the construction of affordable homes by private developers (non-profit or for-profit); rehabilitate existing homes to convert to affordable housing; increase affordability in new housing development projects; develop surplus municipal land or buildings; preserve properties faced with expiring affordability restrictions; support rent assistance for low- and moderate-income households.

Community and Economic Development 

 Municipalities are highly reliant on local property taxes for providing services. Residential property taxes can be minimized by increasing the industrial and commercial tax base. This base also offers jobs and commerce to the community. There are many federal and state grant and technical assistance programs available to assist municipalities and RPAs provide many resources for these activities. 

Federal HUD CDBG funds are provided to the state for disbursement to towns on a competitive basis. Smaller towns often submit regional/multi-town applications. Grant-funded activities address needs such as infrastructure, economic development projects, senior centers, housing rehabilitation, demolition of blighted buildings, microenterprise assistance, and homeowner assistance. EOHLC creates priority program areas every 1–2 years. Most cities in Massachusetts are entitlement communities and do not compete for grant funds, but must submit an application. Cities over 50,000 population receive funds directly from HUD. There are numerous state, local, and regional agencies, non-profits and private sector organizations that work with municipalities around community and economic development. 

Community Preservation Act

 The Community Preservation Act allows communities, who’ve adopted its provisions by ballot vote, to create a local Community Preservation Fund for open space protection, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation. Community preservation monies are raised locally by adding a surcharge of up to 3% to the real estate tax. This allows them to access matching funds provided by the statewide CPA Trust Fund. The Community Preservation Committee seeks proposals for eligible projects and makes recommendations to the legislative body for funding.