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Learning Center

Housing is complicated. Here’s the research and some common terms you'll hear.

Housing Research: or, Why We Advocate for More Housing

Common Housing Terms

By-Right Zoning

By-Right Zoning means that city staff review the construction plans and ensure the developer follows all zoning and building codes, but the project does not need additional approval from the Planning Board or the Zoning Board of Appeals. Larger projects will require an additional step, known as site plan review, in which the city can require modifications—such as moving the location of a loading dock—to reduce potential negative impact on the public.

Special Permit

A special permit requirement means that the project needs additional approval from the city. Even if the project meets all of the requirements specified in the zoning code—height, setbacks, open space, design, etc.—the city can kill the project for any reason. Special permit requirements dramatically hinder the construction of new housing. They create uncertainty for developers and increase costs by lengthening the development process. In too many cases, projects that meet the zoning code are outright blocked. Even if the special permit is eventually approved, the delays incurred by months of hearings does add significant costs to a project—and these costs are passed on to future residents in the form of higher rents and home prices.

Form-Based Zoning 

Traditional zoning codes focus on regulating land use (residential vs commercial, supermarket vs coffee shop) and often neglect how the building actually looks. In contrast, a form-based code also regulates how a building will look and how it interacts with its surroundings. Form-based codes use parameters such as number of floors, the number and placement of windows, the facade heights and styles. Unlike design guidelines, Form Based Codes are requirements for developers to follow, and not just recommended suggestions.

Affordable Housing

Deed-restricted housing that is available only to households that meet specific income eligibility levels, typically households earning below 80% or below 60% of the area's median income (or AMI). The Watertown AMI for a family of four is currently $153,650. 

Inclusionary Zoning

Local municipalities can require that a certain percentage of units in any new housing development be designated as affordable housing (see above). In most of Watertown, new developments are required to designate 12.5% of units as affordable. 

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