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Affordable housing gets boost

Law gives Mass. first option to buy some properties

By Jenifer B. McKim
Globe Staff / November 26, 2009

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Thousands of units of affordable housing that were at risk of being converted into market-rate housing may now be preserved for low-income residents because of legislation signed into law this month by Governor Deval Patrick.

The law gives the state Department of Housing and Community Development first option to buy thousands of government-subsidized properties that have rent restrictions for low-income residents, most of whom are senior citizens and people with disabilities. Over the next decade, about 41,000 units of affordable housing are scheduled to lose their rent restrictions, according to the nonprofit Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.

The legislation deals with homes built by private companies with public subsidies. Rents on such properties are capped, but the restrictions can expire, typically when the mortgage is paid off. Under the new law, rent increases would be limited for three years once a property is no longer designated as affordable.

Housing advocates say the law addresses longstanding concerns about how to preserve much-needed affordable housing in Massachusetts. Many are expected to celebrate with the governor and state officials Monday at a ceremonial signing.

“The governor has signed an important bill that will enable communities and nonprofits to protect tenants and preserve affordable housing,’’ said Joseph Kriesberg, president of the nonprofit Massachusetts Association of Community De velopment Corporations.

Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, which supports rights for the elderly, said the legislation is a “huge step forward.’’ But she said the group will continue to lobby for more ways to increase affordable housing, including incentives for owners to continue renting apartments at below-market rates.

Already, Massachusetts has lost 5,883 units of affordable housing because of rent restrictions being phased out, according to the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. Some tenants have been forced out of apartments because of increased rents, it said.

The law gives the state or its designee the first right of refusal to purchase at market rates certain housing that was built using public money. It also sets up a process to negotiate a price with a property’s owner.

Tina Brooks, undersecretary of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said many owners would be willing to sell their buildings to an organization that provided affordable housing if the sale process is kept simple and the price is fair. But communities often are left scrambling to make a bid when an owner is ready to sell, she said, losing their chance to buy a building. “This bill creates a rational and predictable process to respond to owners who want to sell their properties and allow them to continue as affordable housing for the next generation,’’ she said.

State Representative Kevin Honan, a Democrat of Allston and Brighton and chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, said he first heard concerns about affordable housing contracts 20 years ago in the neighborhoods he represents. The state approved $100 million last session for purchasing and preserving expiring-use properties, he said, but more money is needed.

Aaron Gornstein, executive director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, said the legislation is important, but that government must continue to be committed to affordable units. “This is a major breakthrough and could be a model for other states to follow,’’ he said.