The character of roughly 10% of Needham’s 8,500 single-family houses has changed dramatically over the past decade as a consequence of 75 to 100 annual teardowns.

Teardown homes tend to be smaller, older, in disrepair, or some combination of all three. Many of these houses date back to Needham’s post-World War II building boom, when about 44% of Needham’s housing stock was developed at a time the town’s population was nearly doubling.

Today, new construction is driven not by the GI Bill but almost totally by teardowns, with nearly all new single-family home construction in Needham replacing a teardown due to the dearth of open, available or new lots.

The new homes are substantially larger than the ones they replace. From 2014 to 2021, 720 parcels completely rebuilt after teardowns resulted in an average size increase of 2,931 square feet, according to a review done by Kim Lundgren Associates (KLA), the consulting firm assisting the town’s Climate Action Plan Committee.

One impact is the town is losing its supply of starter homes and replacing them with less affordable, larger homes. This is so concerning to Joe Matthews, a Precinct I Town Meeting member, that he petitioned the Planning Board to address what he sees as shortcomings in town zoning bylaws that facilitate the construction of much larger homes and make Needham increasingly unaffordable.

“Around the time I was growing up in Needham, the middle class was kind of on its way out due to the way the suburbs were developing,” he said. “Now, the upper middle class is under threat without some kind of intervention.”

Recent history

New homes in the U.S. have grown 45% in size since the 1970s, according to data from the MIT Climate Portal.  But in Needham, that number is 64%.

KLA looked at how Needham has fared since the 1970s and calculated that the average living area for Needham homes in 1970 was 2,214 square feet. By the 2020s, it had risen to 3,641 square feet.

In 2014, the town tried to address criticism of bulky “McMansions” being squeezed onto smallish lots. It created a Large House Review Study Committee to develop “recommendations on how best to ensure that new residential construction in the Single Residence B (SRB) and General Residence Districts will complement existing buildings, settings and neighborhood character.” The targeted districts have lots in the 10,000-square-foot, or quarter-acre, range.

Originally scheduled to complete its work in six months, the committee took three years to produce recommendations that ultimately were incorporated in a 2017 Town Meeting warrant item intended to address these concerns.

Town Meeting voted to amend town bylaws, with a particular emphasis in the 10,000-square-foot districts. As written, the change was expected to produce houses that would typically provide 3,800-to-4,000 square feet of living space and not seem incongruous in their neighborhoods.

At last month’s Planning Board meeting, Matthews offered examples of multiple homes within those targeted districts that greatly exceeded that square footage. In addition to citing specific recently completed projects, he referenced listings on the real estate service Zillow that showed multiple homes for sale that greatly exceeded 3,800 square feet.

“Generally, the listings for these houses explicitly state that they are 5,500-to-6,500 square feet across three or four floors, often on parcels of less than 11,000 square feet,” he noted in his presentation. “This is occurring despite previous bylaw changes designed to curtail both the massing of structures and help with housing affordability in Needham by including new restrictions on FAR (floor to area ratio) in lots with SRB zoning.”

Loophole – or not?

The culprit, Matthews argues, is language in the 2017 bylaw that exempts “basements, attics, (and) half-stories located directly above the second floor” from counting toward the total allowable square footage if they are unfinished spaces.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize it as a loophole,” Matthews said in an interview after the meeting. “The telltale sign to me is really that third floor. You see a walkable staircase from the first to the second floor. You have the same staircase leading from the second to the third floor.

“That third floor has a landing, it has a bathroom and it’s fully finished. But it doesn’t count toward the square footage. From a bylaw or classification standpoint, that doesn’t make sense. If it were a commercial property, it certainly would count.

“That’s only because of the paragraph inserted in the bylaw that anything above the second floor doesn’t count,” he said.

In an hour-long discussion at a July Planning Board meeting, Matthews’ contention received mixed responses. Members Artie Crocker and Natasha Espada both signaled agreement, with Espada saying “it’s something that has to be reviewed and revised. It needs to be studied further.”

“I do see the language as a loophole; maybe it was intentional,” said Crocker. “I think it would be a simple fix to remove that loophole. I don’t think we’d need a two- or three-year study.”

Planning Board Chair Adam Block and member Paul Alpert both offered pushback and felt strongly that any change would require considerable study.

What’s next?

After the meeting, Block told the Observer the Planning Board might not have the bandwidth to respond with any near-term action.

“I don’t think the Planning Board is resolved on this,” he said. “We’re open to having another conversation to better understand Joe’s proposal. Block said he did not expect the board to move forward on this for at least a year. “We don’t see this as a high enough priority given the other work we’re doing on affordable housing.”

Matthews says he will continue advocating for his plan with the goal eventually of having an amended bylaw proposal before Town Meeting. 

“It’s ultimately a question to be put to Town Meeting,” he said. “I think there are a lot of benefits from disincentivizing teardowns and limiting the maximum build out of the single-unit houses.”

Matthews acknowledged this could adversely affect people financially, most obviously developers but possibly homeowners whose older homes might sell for less due to decreased development potential. The town may also lose out on the increased property tax revenue from larger homes.

“This is Political Science 101,” he said. “Solve collective action problems, where everyone decides not to maximize their own self-interest in order to help the broader society.”

Matthews feels there is broad public support, especially among Town Meeting members. “I should have allies among anyone who was in Town Meeting in 2017. Because they’ve already passed this.”

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