Towns share office, staff on housing
Six area towns have joined together to share the costs of a regional office that officials hope will help them better manage and monitor affordable housing units, and give potential residents a central location for inventory.
Bedford, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, and Weston worked with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council to set up the Regional Housing Services Office, which officially started July 1.
As host of the regional office, Sudbury will oversee the services for the member communities, including planning, permitting, monitoring, and maintaining existing affordable housing stock, officials said. The office, however, will not be responsible for developing or building affordable units.
“The Regional Housing Services Office will help member communities monitor affordability compliance and restrictions as well as identify and maintain lists of ready buyers and ready renters, thereby increasing access to affordable housing,’’ said Jennifer Raitt, the MAPC’s chief housing planner.
The idea to share housing services was pushed by the top administrators in the member communities, who were looking for a way to maximize resources while improving efficiency, said Beth Rust, Sudbury Community Housing coordinator and manager of the regional office.
The towns spent about two years working with MAPC on the agreement for the office. The planning agency researched how the towns currently administer affordable housing services, and came up with a model for how a regional office could operate.
The cost to run the office is $88,000, Rust said. She said the money will pay for 28 hours of staff time, to be split among Bedford, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, and Weston. Each town’s share of the expenses is based on the number of housing units in the community, and how much work is involved handling its operations. Bedford pays 28 percent; Lexington, 26 percent; Concord, 20 percent; and Lincoln and Weston, 13 percent each. Sudbury’s work is done outside of the agreement, Rust said.
Rust said the rules and regulations for affordable housing are substantial and complex, and most towns don’t have experts on staff to handle the many issues that arise.
Rust said she will help the towns make sure all existing affordable housing units meet state and local requirements, and work with developers that have proposed new housing projects, as well as help consumers find affordable housing.
“It’s a pretty innovative approach,’’ Rust said. “Other towns have been studying how to do this.’’
One of the biggest jobs will be helping towns monitor housing for compliance so affordable housing units stay affordable, Rust said.
The state’s affordable housing law, Chapter 40B, sets a target threshold for affordable housing as 10 percent of a community’s total stock of housing. In communities that fall below the 10 percent mark, developers that include a certain percentage of affordable units in a housing project can bypass most local zoning regulations.
Bedford’s affordable housing stock is 16.1 percent of its total figure; Lincoln’s is 10.5 percent; Lexington’s, 11.1 percent, Concord’s, 10.4 percent; Sudbury’s, 4.7 percent; and Weston’s, 3.5 percent.
Rust said all affordable housing units have certain restrictions that must be met by either the property owners or renters, and towns are responsible for monitoring compliance.
For example, when a consumer purchases an affordable home, they must use it as their primary residence, cannot refinance without prior approval, and cannot transfer it without prior approval, Rust said.
Carl Valente, Lexington’s town manager, said the regional office will help his town keep better tabs on affordable housing.
“We’ve been struggling with housing administration for years,’’ he said. “We’re not large enough to be able to hire someone to handle affordable housing issues, so by consolidating we’re able to buy the staff expertise as a group. It’s going to make a huge difference for us.’’
Valente said towns are required to monitor compliance of existing units each year, but that has fallen by the wayside.
“We do almost none of the required monitoring,’’ Valente said. “We’ll address something if we’ve heard there is a problem, but that’s not a very good way to monitor your inventory.’’
The regional office will also help the town deal with proposed affordable housing projects, he said.
When a private developer proposes a project, there are planning and permitting rules that must be followed. The new office will help communities work with developers to make sure all those rules are being followed.
“The Planning Department handles this as best as they could, but they aren’t set up to do this and we don’t have the staff,’’ Valente said.
In Concord, the affordable housing issues were also handled by the Planning Department, which is already stretched thin, said Town Manager Chris Whelan.
“We all need a little professional assistance, so it would make sense to get together on this,’’ Whelan said. “It was motivated by being more efficient and providing a higher-quality service.’’
Raitt said the agreement is in place for two years, after which officials will review how it has worked and whether to continue or expand the arrangement.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at email@example.com.