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Despite critics, town votes to spend $1m for affordable housing

By Lisa Keen
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2009
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Not everyone at Wellesley's Town Meeting last week agreed that the town should spend more than $1 million for affordable housing.

In the end, two measures were approved - $700,000 for renovations at the Waldo Court affordable-housing complex and $350,000 for the Wellesley Housing Development Corporation. But amendments killing the funding had to be beaten back.

And some Town Meeting members were more than willing to voice their concerns and outright opposition to the proposals, which draw on the town's Community Preservation Act funds. One member called the Waldo Court proposal "a total rip-off of our money."

In a town where about 5.5 percent of the housing stock is deemed affordable by the state, the Waldo Court proposal came with the blessing of selectmen and the town's Advisory Committee. Selectmen endorsed the project to "further expand our quality affordable-housing stock in Wellesley."

Waldo Court at 50 Linden St. has 12 two-bedroom units built in the early 1930s. Jack Morgan, chairman of the Community Preservation Act Committee, said the units are in such dire need of repair and upgrading that only three are being used. The state has already chipped in $1.6 million toward the work of making the other nine habitable.

During discussion at Town Meeting's second night on Tuesday, Kathleen Woodward said she supports the development of affordable housing but is concerned that adding nine families in the Waldo Court units could substantially increase the number of students at the already overcrowded Sprague Elementary School.

George Porter, who said he served as a member of the Wellesley Housing Authority for 20 years, said the town was setting a "very, very dangerous precedent" by funding the rehab. He said the housing is a state program "and theirs to pay for."

"They're the ones that let it go to hell," said Porter.

And Dennis DiSchino said the state's funding is sufficient.

"It's a total rip-off of our money," said DiSchino. "They don't need our $700,000."

But Morgan reminded Town Meeting that Community Preservation Act funds are designated to support affordable housing, community sites, and open space. He also noted that the town owns the units and that, by policy, has committed itself to community housing "and doing what it can to support diversity among income groups in town, and we regard that as our responsibility and something that should be funded."

An attempt to separate the Waldo Court funding from the other Community Preservation funding proposals failed to pass.

Town Meeting member Roy Switzler sought to delete the $350,000 payment to the Wellesley Housing Development Corporation, which will fund its efforts to buy affordable housing that might become available.

Switzler said he opposed the appropriation because the Housing Development Corporation strategy of purchasing one or two units of housing at a time was "an extremely expensive way to get additional units."

Town Meeting members defeated Switzler's amendment, keeping the $350,000 payment in the package.

Town Meeting then approved the full Community Preservation Act funding package, 122 to 52. That package also included $65,000 toward repair and preservation of the Sprague Clock Tower, a landmark clock tower at the intersection of routes 16 and 9, and $50,000 for administrative costs for the committee.

Wellesley's Community Preservation Act funds, collected primarily from taxpayers through a 1 percent annual surcharge, has approximately $5.6 million.

Bradley Boyd, chairman of the Wellesley Housing Authority, said the town has 483 units of affordable housing, or 5.5 percent of the total housing stock. The state law known as Chapter 40B requires towns to have at least 10 percent of its housing affordable, or developers can bypass local zoning restrictions for below-market projects.

The committee postponed a request for $50,000 to come up with a plan for improving community housing at Barton Road.

Morgan said the committee "strongly supports" the development of a plan, including one that would bring more affordable housing units to almost six acres of adjoining town property.

But the town's Advisory Committee said the recommendation was not developed enough yet and the Preservation Committee agreed to develop a more "robust" proposal to bring to Town Meeting next year.