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Catholic bishops oppose repeal of state affordable housing law

By Alan Wirzbicki
Globe Staff / September 22, 2010

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Adding an influential voice to the campaign to save the Massachusetts affordable housing law, the state’s Catholic bishops declared their opposition yesterday to ballot Question 2, which would repeal the law.

“Housing is a human right,’’ said a statement released yesterday by all four of the state’s bishops: Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, Bishop George W. Coleman of Fall River, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, and Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester. Keeping the law on the books would “preserve our state’s ability to act in the most effective way to meet the need of every individual for a decent affordable home,’’ the bishops said.

The law, known as Chapter 40B, has long been controversial in many suburban communities because it allows developers to bypass certain local zoning laws if municipalities don’t have enough affordable housing, defined as at least 10 percent of a town’s housing stock.

Last week, a study by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute said the law had generated $9.25 billion in construction and related spending over the last 10 years. According to the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, an affordable-housing nonprofit that opposes Question 2, about 12,000 proposed housing units would be endangered if the question passes.

Opponents of Question 2 say repealing the law would reduce the state’s economic competitiveness by making housing prices skyrocket in a state that already has some of the nation’s most expensive real estate. All three gubernatorial candidates, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and much of the business community oppose the repeal.

But supporters say that real estate developers are the main beneficiary of the law, and that repealing it would reassert local control over community decisions.

The “no’’ campaign has dominated fund-raising. Developers and affordable-housing groups have funneled $565,751 into the “no’’ campaign’s coffers since the beginning of the year, and are set to vastly outspend proponents in the fall. The Repeal 40B committee reported raising $4,965 through the end of August, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state.

John Belskis, the leader of the group supporting the repeal, said he wasn’t surprised by the church’s position, given that the archdiocese itself has an office that develops affordable housing.

“They are protecting one of their operating entities,’’ he said.

“I applaud their willingness to support affordable housing, but I think they are misunderstanding the intent of the repeal,’’ said Belskis, who described himself as a 76-year-old Catholic. “There’s a lot of Catholics who aren’t always happy with what comes out of the cardinal’s office. If the church wants to say 40B is a good idea, they are going to find a lot of people have a contrary opinion.’’

The Boston Archdiocese was one of the original backers of the law when it was passed in 1969, and has built 630 units in eight different properties under 40B — including the first development in the state built with the law, the 98-unit Northridge Homes in Beverly, completed in 1975.

The archdiocese has two more developments underway, a 41-unit apartment building in Billerica and a 66-unit development in Hanover, according to Lisa Alberghini, the president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, an affiliate of the Archdiocese of Boston that develops housing. Both are intended for seniors.

Alberghini said that the Billerica building would not be affected by the outcome of the referendum, but that the Hanover development could be derailed if Question 2 passes because it is not yet fully permitted.

Alberghini said that affordable housing is “an important social justice issue’’ and that the archdiocese doesn’t seek to make any profits from its housing projects.

“One of the reasons we do that is we fundamentally believe that people should have a right to choose where they live, and every community should contribute to providing that opportunity,’’ she said.

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.

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