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Affordable housing law faces new challenge

Activist says 40B foes are more frustrated and more organized

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / August 19, 2009

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Opponents and advocates of the state’s contentious affordable housing law are preparing for battle - again - after a petition to repeal the 1969 law was submitted to the state attorney general’s office.

The petition, submitted by the nonprofit Coalition to Repeal 40B, would place the decision before voters in November 2010. The effort launches a statewide campaign that is bound to heat up a simmering fight over the law, which opponents say unfairly usurps local control over planning without truly helping to provide housing for working families.

John Belskis, an Arlington retiree who leads the coalition, said critics are more frustrated and more organized than they were two years ago, when members failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot. Members in 184 cities and towns are planning to get the required 66,593 signatures before the due date of Dec. 2, he said.

“We were amateurs two years ago. This is a true grass-roots organization,’’ Belskis said. “We’ve almost doubled our membership.’’

Under the law, builders are allowed to bypass certain zoning restrictions in communities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is classified as affordable. To do so, they must set aside 25 percent of the units they build for residents who make less than 80 percent of the community’s median income. Profits for such projects are capped at 20 percent, with any excess channeled back to the cities and towns to be used to create more housing.

Supporters say they will fight to defend the law, which they believe has been fundamental in creating housing for working families. More than 50,000 homes have been built under 40B, of which 28,000 have been designated affordable and set aside for families that meet state income criteria, according to the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Aaron Gornstein, executive director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a nonprofit advocacy group, said supporters of the law are taking the petition seriously and will work to educate the public.

“We are facing a situation of rising unemployment and record foreclosures, and the need for housing that is affordable for working families is greater than ever,’’ Gornstein said. “That is why it is so important that this successful program be preserved.’’

Barry Bluestone, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, said it is imperative for the health of the state’s economy that people be able to find affordable housing.

“Losing something like 40B would be disastrous, because it would take away one of the major instruments to promote affordable housing for young people,’’ said Bluestone. “This referendum could be devastating to the economy.’’

Opponents of the law argue that it is used by developers to build high density projects, extracting huge profits at the expense of communities. They say the affordable units are too expensive for many working families.

State Senator Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, said many communities are growing increasingly frustrated by housing projects created under 40B. He said he is confident opponents will garner enough signatures to move the petition forward. Hedlund recently filed a bill to require 40B projects to meet local wetlands bylaws, following concerns about a proposal to build a project along a salt marsh in Scituate.

Kristen McEvoy of Groton said she is meeting with members from 10 communities to devise a strategy for gathering signatures. McEvoy became involved in the effort two years ago after fighting a 40B development next to her house. Since then, she said, the development has stalled.

“Two years ago, we had to educate the public about 40B. Now I’ve got people calling me,’’ McEvoy said. “We know what we are doing. We are going to get these signatures and get it on the ballot.’’

Jenifer McKim can be reaches at jmckim@globe.com.