Monday, October 18, 2010

NEWS: Debating Massachusetts's Affordable Housing Law

State Representative William G. Greene Jr. supports the state ballot question to repeal Chapter 40B, saying it is high time Massachusetts scrapped its four-decade-old affordable housing law.

“It’s a law that doesn’t work to begin with and is tremendously destructive to the towns who developers decide to go in and build in,’’ the Billerica Democrat said. “It takes away any ability of towns to plan for their growth — the growth is at the whim of the developer.’’

Revere Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino is among those who oppose the Nov. 2 ballot question 2, saying the affordable housing law has proven its value.

“I think Chapter 40B has been effective in creating affordable housing, which is an absolute need in the Commonwealth,’’ he said. “In its absence, I fear that affordable housing will take place only in dense urban communities and nothing will ever take place in any of the suburbs. That certainly is not a fair system.’’

Adopted in 1969, Chapter 40B is intended to promote the creation of affordable housing by allowing builders to bypass local zoning rules if their projects include affordable housing.

Under the law, developers whose projects do not comply with local zoning can seek a comprehensive permit from local zoning boards if at least 20 to 25 percent of the units meet state affordability guidelines.

If denied, the developer then can appeal the local board’s decision to the state Housing Appeals Committee, which can overturn it.

Communities whose housing stock is at least 10 percent affordable are effectively exempted from those appeals.

Statewide, committees for and against the repeal are working to sway voters to their sides.

John Belskis, an Arlington town meeting member who is leading the vote-yes campaign, said Massachusetts’s ranking of 47th among states in housing affordability is evidence that Chapter 40B is ineffective.

“It doesn’t work. It’s senseless. It’s a weapon to beat cities and towns into submission,’’ said Belskis, who also pointed to financial irregularities state Inspector General Gregory W. Sullivan has uncovered with some Chapter 40B projects.

But Francy Ronayne, spokeswoman for the campaign opposing Question 2, calls it a “very dangerous ballot question,’’ noting that 58,000 units of housing — 30,000 of them affordable — have been built under the law since its inception.

An additional 12,000 units — 3,000 of them affordable — are in the pipeline.

Ronanye, who works for the Boston public relations agency Solomon McCown & Co., also cited a recent study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute showing that the law over the past decade has generated more than $9.25 million in economic activity and nearly 48,000 jobs.

“With a track record like that and with the jobs that are at stake, we feel it’s incredibly important for voters’’ to vote no on the ballot question, she said.

Ambrosino acknowledged justifiable criticism of the law, but said, “Overall, it’s been a benefit. . . . This is taking an ax to a problem that may need some minor tweaking.’’

Greene said that effort hasn’t worked. “We have been through the legislative process for many years to get changes in 40B and we have been fought tooth and nail,’’ he said.

David Basile, a former Finance Committee member from Lynnfield, also is advocating for repeal.

“Chapter 40B and its intent has been basically overwhelmed by development interests and the whole thing needs to be reworked,’’ he said. “There certainly is an interest in trying to provide affordable housing, but . . . just jamming a minimal number of affordable units in to expand a project can have a detrimental impact on a community, especially it’s school system.’’

Philip Bronder-Giroux, executive director of Tri-City Community Action Program, is actively opposing the ballot question, which he warns would have a negative effect on people in need. Tri-CAP is a Malden-based anti-poverty agency that focuses on homelessness prevention and outreach to homeless people.

“Without the law, communities would not build housing that is generally affordable,’’ he said. “Even with the law, very few communities have met the 10 percent threshold.’’

Also speaking out against the repeal is Emily Weitzman Rosenbaum, executive director of Coalition for a Better Acre.

The Lowell nonprofit’s work includes managing and developing affordable housing, foreclosure prevention, and counseling for new homeowners.

While her group has not had to use Chapter 40B for its projects because of Lowell’s relatively flexible zoning rules, Rosenbaum said she feared that without the law, affordable housing would not be built in suburban communities with more restrictive zoning.

Rosenbaum said that would intensify the already high demand for low-cost housing in cities like Lowell.

As an indicator of that demand, she noted that 366 people applied in a lottery to select tenants for 22 new affordable apartments recently developed by her group.

“Had we had a longer marketing period, the list might have gotten even longer,’’ she said.

Rob Crossley, a former Finance Committee member from Merrimac, cites two trailer parks in town that illustrate problems with the law.

The trailers, though low cost, cannot be included on the town’s affordable housing inventory under state rules.

“I don’t think it’s achieved its intended goal,’’ he said of 40B. “It’s intended to provide affordable housing. I think it uses that as a false premise for overriding local zoning.’’

John Laidler Boston Globe October 7, 2010

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