Lowell Politics Newsletter: March 3, 2024

On Tuesday night, Assistant City Manager/DPD Director Yovani Baez-Rose made an excellent presentation to the City Council on Lowell Forward 2040, the city’s comprehensive master plan update that will now be considered by the Council. The executive summary and the full plan are online. At more than 200 pages, the document will take a while to digest but its major themes are quickly evident.

Housing is a big concern of Lowell Forward 2040 and rightfully so since the lack of housing has driven its cost to a level that is either unaffordable or unduly stressful for many residents. This is perhaps the major driver of homelessness, but it also drives younger people, especially younger families, to more affordable places, which is damaging to the long-term prospects of Lowell.

The plan, in calling for “a comprehensive zoning review, equitable and accessible growth, homes for all, expanding and creating new opportunities for affordable homeownership, and ensuring fair housing policies and practices,” seeks to address the housing challenge in a variety of ways.

Unfortunately, the city has already had its debate on housing policy. That was the fight over ADUs (accessory dwelling units) that was waged through 2022 and 2023. It’s almost as if the housing chapter of Lowell Forward 2040 was drafted early in that period when the ADU proposal was rolling along with a seemingly insurmountable Council majority in favor of it. But then, as some residents of single-family neighborhoods mobilized in opposition to ADUs, and that growing opposition coincided with the coming city election, Council support for ADUs collapsed and the measure was defeated with little chance it will be revisited, at least at the local level. (ADUs may re-emerge if Governor Healey’s comprehensive housing bill and its ADUs-by-right provisions make it through the legislature.)

Lowell Forward 2040’s approach to housing is not centered on ADUs. In fact, the plan might not even mention them. But the outcome of the ADU fight is emblematic on the current City Council’s approach to housing which is to maintain the status quo in established neighborhoods where the bulk of those who vote in city elections reside, while allowing some new things in less politically active areas. Hence, the complete lack of controversy over Lowell’s adoption of the MBTA Communities zoning requirements last year. Compare that to the bitter fight over the same MBTA Communities law in towns such as Milton which consist almost exclusively of single-family housing and lack the low income, high density, low political participation neighborhoods as in Lowell in which the MBTA Communities zoning requirements can be imposed without inciting the ire of local voters.  (More on the Milton issue below.)

I’ll revisit other parts of Lowell Forward 2040 in the coming weeks but from the little I’ve seen thus far it will be an excellent plan. But that’s not unusual. For nearly half a century, the quality of planning documents produced by Lowell’s planning department has been consistently excellent. The problem is not with the plans. The problem has been, and will continue to be, that City Councilors completely disregard such plans in favor of the short term, reactionary approach to policy on display every Tuesday night.

To succeed, a city such as Lowell must have a shared vision of its priorities and how its resources can be used to achieve those priorities. That’s the purpose of a strategic plan. As circumstances change, plans can too, but it’s always better to change an existing plan than it is to make things up as you go along. For too long, that latter approach has characterized how the Lowell City Council operates.


As mentioned above, the town of Milton, Massachusetts, has been in the news for its refusal to comply with the MBTA Communities Law which is intended to create more housing near public transportation facilities. Although the Milton town meeting last year adopted a zoning change that would comply with the law, at a ballot referendum two weeks ago, a majority of Milton’s voters rejected that plan which put the town in violation of state law. The vote was held on February 14, 2024, with 5,115 voting not to adopt the zoning amendment and 4,346 voting for it (54% to 46%).

Lowell is also subject to the MBTA Communities Law, but it has been uncontroversial here, mostly because the neighborhoods affected are already densely populated with multifamily units, so tweaking the existing zoning to allow more units to be constructed was not as controversial as a comparable plan was in Milton, a south of Boston town of 29,000 residents with predominantly single-family housing.

Milton is not the only community whose residents oppose compliance with the MBTA Communities Law, but the recent election makes it the poster child for disobeying state law, so many are watching to see what consequences that will bring.

In the aftermath of the No vote, the Healey administration announced that Milton will be ineligible for housing-related grants from the state. While that might have an impact on town planners and budget writers, it’s doubtful that anyone who voted against increasing multifamily zoning will worry about losing state grants that promote more multifamily housing.

More effective might be a lawsuit against the town filed on Thursday by State Attorney General Andrea Campbell. Filed directly in the Supreme Judicial Court, Campbell asks the court to order the town to create a zoning district that complies with the law within 90 days of the court’s order and, if the town does not comply with that court order, enter an injunction prohibiting the town from enforcing any of its existing zoning rules that are inconsistent with the objectives of the MBTA Communities Act.

Although it might take a while for the SJC to issue a full decision, I suspect that some preliminary judgment will be forthcoming soon. The importance of this case transcends the town of Milton, for it addresses the ability of the Commonwealth to impose policy on its cities and towns in areas such as housing and education.


On March 1, 1826, the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, came into legal existence. Late in 1825, the state legislature voted for the charter with an effective date of March 1, 1826. (Lowell would be granted a city charter ten years later.)

As we approach Lowell’s bicentennial in 2026, more attention will be paid to the circumstances of this charter. However, in recognition of the March 1st anniversary, I posted the full language of the legislation, Chapter 112 of the Special Laws of 1825.

The bill did several things: first, was to establish the boundaries of the new community. To visualize the initial boundaries of Lowell with reference to modern landmarks, begin at the bank of the Merrimack River on Pawtucket Street near the Lowell Humane Society; from there, go south (perpendicular to the river) on a line along today’s Stevens Street to Cross Point; then go east along Route 495 North to the Concord River; then follow the Concord River north to the Merrimack River, then westerly along the Merrimack to the point of beginning. Essentially, the initial grant of Lowell consisted of downtown, the Acre, South Lowell, and the lower Highlands. (The rest of today’s Lowell was annexed from Tewksbury, Dracut, and Chelmsford by half a dozen pieces of legislation through the 1800s.)

Besides setting the boundaries of the new town, the legislation also allocated taxes between Lowell and Chelmsford. I assume the new town was born midway through the tax year, so Chelmsford was entitled to part of that year’s property taxes and Lowell the rest.

Surprisingly, the legislation also allocated responsibility for the care of paupers, or what we would call the homeless. It said each town – Chelmsford and Lowell – was responsible for caring for poor people within their respective boundaries, but in cases where the residence of the person in need could not be determined, then both towns were equally responsible.

One of my favorite quotes is, “The only thing new in the world is the history you have not yet read,” (President Harry Truman). Seeing that caring for the poorest in the region was a significant enough issue in 1826 to make it into Lowell’s founding legislation, we should not be surprised (or frustrated) that homelessness is still a challenge in Lowell 200 years later.


Among the many consequences of the internet has been to make the means of distributing information available to almost everyone. Before the internet, newspapers and magazines had tremendous influence on what people were able to read because their owners controlled the tools of distribution. But the internet allowed anyone with an internet connection and a computer to be a publisher.

The consequences of that have been good and bad. One of the better ones, in my opinion, was to shrink the world and allow us to interact virtually with people we otherwise would never have heard of. An excellent example of that is the writings of Malcolm Sharps which have appeared on my website, richardhowe.com, for several years.

Malcolm came to me through his friendship with Steve O’Connor, the prolific Lowell author who, as I understand it, first encountered Malcolm forty years ago in Europe when both were youthfully exploring the continent. Although born and raised in England, Malcolm gravitated to Eastern Europe and settled in Budapest, Hungary, where he worked as an English translator.

But Malcolm was also a skilled writer who put a higher value on the craft of writing than he did on having his work published. So while friends like Steve had access to Malcolm’s wonderful prose in letters and later in email, few others were able to enjoy Malcolm’s writing. Somehow, Steve introduced Malcolm to richardhowe.com and soon the pieces began arriving, maybe one every other month. Malcolm always had something interesting to say but the thing I admired most was his skill with the written word. Even if the topic was of no interest to me, I still enjoyed reading his work because of the artistry of his writing.

Regrettably, Malcolm passed away recently in Hungary. His longtime friend, Peter Bendall, shared an appreciation of Malcolm which is itself a masterful piece of writing. Even if you’ve never read anything by Malcolm, I urge you to check out Peter’s story about him.

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