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For many towns, housing goal remains elusive

Drive to repeal Chapter 40B reflects divide

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / June 13, 2010

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Mike Rosenberg, chairman of the Bedford Board of Selectmen, exults in his town’s success in adding apartments and condominiums that the average teacher or police officer can afford.

The share of its housing stock considered affordable is nearly twice the 10 percent threshold set by the state — as part of the decades-old Chapter 40B housing law — and still growing.

“We have approached it as something to be affirmative about,’’ Rosenberg said.

But 20 miles to the south, Dover planning chief Gino Carlucci is practically in despair over the same issue. He’s struggling to just get a few condos built that will meet the affordability criteria, selling for $240,000 or less.

Forty years after the Legislature passed Chapter 40B to encourage the creation of affordable housing, opponents — contending it promotes oversized projects and outsized profits for developers, and leaves communities helpless to protect local resources — are in the final stages of a petition drive to put a repeal proposal on the state ballot this fall.

Supporters contend repealing the law would be a disaster, undercutting affordable-housing construction in one of the nation’s priciest real estate markets.

As the debate heats up, a review of area communities finds starkly different results in how they have met the challenges posed by Chapter 40B.

In Bedford, 18 percent of homes and apartments are considered affordable under the law, while in Dover, the number hovers at 1 percent. Lexington has met the state’s goal of 10 percent, while neighboring Belmont is pushing to get past 3 percent as of April 1, the latest figures available from the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

“A lot of it may have to do with a few individuals who have been real leaders in their communities,’’ said Barry Bluestone, a Northeastern University political economist and housing market specialist. “It may come down to just having good citizens who believe in trying to house people who need housing in their community.’’

But towns that have struggled to meet the 10 percent minimum target blame high land prices, a dearth of buildable lots, and quirks in the law itself.

“I think it would be difficult for Dover to reach 10 percent,’’ Carlucci said. “It will be many years, if ever, before we reach it.’’

Chapter 40B gives extra muscle to developers trying to build housing in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable. It allows builders to bypass many local zoning rules and boards in a streamlined approval process.

In return, builders must sell or rent 20 percent to 25 percent of a new development’s units at prices affordable to those earning 80 percent of the area’s median income. A family of four making $66,150 or less would qualify, as would a couple making no more than $52,950, according to the Citizens Housing and Planning Association, a nonprofit housing advocacy group.

The survey of 51 area communities found nine have met the 10 percent threshold, based on state records. In addition to Bedford and Lexington, they are Framingham, Franklin, Hudson, Lincoln, Marlborough, Natick, and Westborough.

Often, however, developers filing to build under Chapter 40B have met with bitter community resistance.

Arlington resident John Belskis, chairman of the Coalition to Repeal 40B, contends developers have abused the law’s requirements in order to ram through large housing projects, and have taken out larger profits than the 20 percent allowed by the law.

He points to a report by state Inspector General Gregory Sullivan that found developers failed to turn over millions in additional profits that should have gone to local communities, and asks, “What kind of a law is it that allows people to come into my town and run over all my bylaws and conservation protections?’’

Belskis said he would like the Legislature to craft a new law that relies on regional planning and new zoning rules as a way to spur the construction of more affordable housing.

But many town officials, from Bedford to Dover, argue that repealing the law would make a tough housing situation worse. Instead, officials said, they have tried to work with an admittedly imperfect law.

“I know it is really difficult for towns when big developments come in,’’ said Sandra Hackman, chairwoman of Bedford’s Planning Board. “It can be distressing because developers can override local zoning. But it is really critical for the region to have enough affordable housing and diversity of housing. The region can’t survive if housing is overpriced and no one can afford to live here.’’

Bedford ranks fourth in the state in its proportion of affordable housing, behind Boston, Holyoke, and Aquinnah, on Martha’s Vineyard. Rosenberg says with pride that his town was home to the first 40B housing development in the state, back in 1974.

Lawrence Carlton, who raised a family in Bedford and runs an accounting firm in town, lives in a market-rate apartment at the Heritage at Bedford Springs, a complex developed under the affordable-housing law.

Carlton said he can’t tell who the residents of the income-restricted units are, and does not really care.

“It has been a wonderful community,’’ Carlton said. “It has seen growth, but it has retained that community feeling.’’

At the opposite end of the range, Dover finds itself struggling to gain ground. After years of planning, the upscale suburban community — with a single traffic light in the town center — has two housing developments under construction that will produce perhaps a dozen affordable units.

The 28-condo Dover Meadows complex will include about seven affordable units costing $165,000, with the balance carrying market-rate prices of $700,000 and up. Dover Farms features 20 single-family homes, including five affordable properties. Market-rate homes are priced between $850,000 to $1 million, while the ones set aside under income restrictions will cost about $240,000.

Carlucci, Dover’s planning director, cites high land prices as a deterrent to developers looking to roll out developments that will include dramatically lower-priced affordable units.

It is a sentiment echoed by Mark Howe, the developer of Dover Meadows. Given land costs of at least $500,000 per buildable lot, new homes in Dover can sell for up to $1.5 million. “You lose money on all your affordable units,’’ he said.

Yet Lincoln, another elite rural suburb with similar home prices, has faced similar challenges but experienced much different results.

While the town may drop below the 10 percent threshold after the results of the latest census are released, there is a plan in the works to add another four to six units to get back above the mark, said Pamela Gallup, a member of the town’s Housing Commission.

“We are just very active and we are always looking’’ for opportunities to add affordable units, she said. “We have them pretty much spread across town.’’

Alongside activism, other factors have helped some towns meet the 10 percent goal, including quirks in the law. Towns with the space for larger apartment projects can get to 10 percent faster, since all rental units, whether set aside with income limits or not, are counted as affordable housing.

Lexington, Bedford, and Belmont, much closer to Boston and more densely populated, face a different set of challenges when it comes to boosting the number of affordable homes, condos, and apartments. Unlike Lincoln and Dover, with their rolling fields and woods, there is simply less land available for building.

Belmont has struggled to boost its percentage above 3.3, with more than 98 percent of its land area already built out, town planning director Jay Szklut said. The town has added some units over the past few years, and has passed an inclusionary zoning bylaw that requires any new housing development to make at least 15 percent of its units affordable, he noted.

“The biggest problem Belmont has is that there is no place to build new housing,’’ Szklut said.

Many of the communities that have met 40B’s requirements can point to a long history of local housing activism.

In Lincoln, Housing Commission member Gallup said the push to add affordable units stretches back to the 1970s and ’80s. “We have had a lot of people who have been really innovative,’’ she said. “They have used all their skills to put these deals together.’’

Robert Bicknell, chairman of the Lexington Housing Partnership, a citizen panel appointed by the town, has also pushed for years on the issue. Bicknell started lobbying for the construction of more affordable housing after noticing a dearth of younger parents in town, he said, as well as concerns that his children, now grown, might not be able to afford to live in town.

Having reached the 10 percent goal, Lexington is crafting new rules that will spur the construction of more modestly sized, and reasonably priced, single-family homes, Bicknell said.

The local real estate market’s high prices have forced many potential residents to look elsewhere, Bicknell said, and the community is poorer for it.

“We have lost a lot of those people,’’ Bicknell said. “It’s the vitality, the soccer coaches, the Little League coaches, the people who make the town work.’’

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.