ESSEX — The creation of multifamily zoning in 175 MBTA communities, including those on Cape Ann, is something the state must get right to solve the housing crunch, state Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy told a group of 80 business leaders Wednesday morning in Essex.

To create more housing, an economic development bill that became law in January 2021 requires MBTA communities to create a zoning district in which family-friendly, non-age restricted multifamily housing near transit hubs can be done as of right, Kennealy said during a North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast forum at The Essex Room at Woodman’s on Main Street.

“We are out there now finalizing the guidelines on that one,” Kennealy said. “It’s not something the governor proposed, (it’s) something the Legislature passed, the governor signed, and we are trying to get that one right.”

“Housing near public transit,” Kenneally added, “has enormous potential for Massachusetts. It is smart housing policy, smart transit policy, smart climate policy, and smart local economic development policy. We have to and we will get that one right.”

Kennealy was asked about this proposal as Gloucester wrestles with a series of zoning amendments meant to create more housing in America’s oldest seaport.

With Gloucester’s downtown already densely populated, there has been concern among some residents about draft MBTA communities guidelines that show a “minimum multifamily district unit capacity requirement” of 2,270 units for Gloucester’s proposed zoning district.

Cities and town which fail to comply and create a multifamily zoning district would become ineligible for certain state grants. The state Department of Housing and Community Development, which Kennealy oversees, is drafting final guidelines with input from communities.

Kennealy was asked how the state could overcome resistance to the proposed zoning.

“The folks who are resistant to new housing,” he said, “you should ask them, ‘Where do you think their kids are going to live?’ ‘Where is the next generation in this state going to live if we never resolve this?’”

“And folks need to realize that we need every community on board with solving the housing crisis. Every single one. It is core to our future,” he said.

A lack of housing production has led to soaring costs, a lack of inventory, has contributed to homelessness, and has hurt the state’s competitiveness, he said.

“In the last 30 years we have produced less than half the amount of housing we produced in the prior 30 years,” Kennealy said. From 1960 to 1990, the state produced 900,000 housing units. From 1990 to 2020, 440,000. “In a single generation, we cut in half our level of housing production at a time when our economy grew and our population grew.”

Kennealy said the MBTA communities proposal holds a lot of promise.

“A lot of the anxiety … about MBTA communities is as if this is a mandate to produce housing. It is not. It is a mandate to zone for housing,” he said. “To the extent that we have gotten pushback on this, ‘Look, you are making us build this housing,’ we’re not. The Legislature passed a mandate to zone, not a mandate to produce.”

Housing production, he said, will take time, but the zoning needs to be in place to facilitate any future housing production.

“There are concerns” about the MBTA communities proposal, said Gloucester Mayor Greg Verga, who was attending the breakfast and expressed his concerns about some of the guidelines in a letter to Kennealy earlier this year. “If — a big if — we sign on to the MBTA plan, it’s not like a year from now 2,200 units are going to be put in place. It’s just not going to happen.”

“But, I understand the concern that the residents have ... they are concerned about what could happen. So we are watching it,” Verga said.

“As I said in my response letter to (Kennealy’s) office, we are going to withhold our judgment until the final guidelines come out,” Verga said. “The current ones do not work for us. It’s that simple.”

Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or eforman@northofboston.com.

Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or eforman@northofboston.com.

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