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An election that could shake up Greater Boston's housing market

Posted by Scott Van Voorhis October 18, 2010 09:33 AM

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Voters across the Bay State head to the polls Nov. 2nd.

And while most likely won't realize it, they will be deciding the future of the housing market, both in the Boston market and across the state, for years to come.

Most of the media attention has been lavished on the increasingly byzantine barbs and allegations being exchanged by the three gubernatorial candidates. Gee, news flash, maybe these guys really don't like each other - kind of funny how battles for power can bring out the worst in people.

Sadly, little if any attention is being paid to possibly the most consequential item on the ballot this coming election day - Question 2.

If passed, the referendum question would scuttle the Bay State's bluntly effective, though highly imperfect, affordable housing law that has been in effect for four decades now.

Under Chapter 40B, developers who want to build new condos, apartments and homes in towns with a dearth of affordable housing are able to override local zoning obstacles.

The typical pattern is a project with 75 percent market rate units, with 25 percent affordable set-asides.

Critics have a lot to say about 40B - here's a link to the website of the coalition pushing the repeal.

But the arguments themselves are somewhat contradictory.

While the party line is that 40B has failed to produce enough affordable housing, many of the activists and others driving this are clearly animated by anger over the perceived abuses of the law.

One source of discontent are particular builders who have allegedly pushed through large-scale luxury housing developments with the help of a law aimed at promoting affordable housing.

In addition, as the state's inspector general noted in a sweeping report on the subject, some developers have manipulated the law to take a greater share of the profits at the expense of local communities. Chapter 40B caps the profits developers can earn. The idea was to reward all those hard-pressed suburbs with a share of the profits to help compensate for more housing units and increased school costs, frankly a dubious concept, but I'll hold my tongue here.

Finally, there is the caveman element that emerges every time I or anyone else writes on this subject. This is the crowd that seems to think towns like Medford or Woburn are in danger of being flooded with urban style, Section 8 housing projects. And that repealing 40B will stop some imagined flood of so-called "welfare housing" from swamping the suburbs.

That argument is pure nonsense and casts a cloud over other, legitimate issues critics have raised.

Clearly, there are problems with 40B.

But the opponents seem to be so caught in detailing the old law's flaws they don't seem to be able to see the larger picture. Or they already own a home and would just rather pull up the drawbridge, leaving the rest of us to deal with the reality of housing prices that are continually out of whack thanks to a dearth of new construction.

The fact is housing construction across Greater Boston has been on a strong and steady decline since the 1980s. Complaining of ever higher school costs, many towns have locked out new, middle-class housing with zoning rules that rewards developers for building McMansions.

Check out this report by Harvard's Rappaport Institute, which delves into the impact of our chronic housing shortage. Here's also a link to the Vote No on Question 2 campaign - which features an array of housing activists, developers, unions, churches and business groups.

As the number of new subdivisions has fallen off, the more densely packed condo developments and apartment complexes that builders are pushing through with help of 40B are increasingly becoming the only game in town.

Gutting the law would overnight wipe out plans for 12,000 new condos, apartments and single family homes. And in region where home price bubbles are increasingly becoming the norm, all those canceled housing plans will eventually come back to haunt us all.

However, the biggest fallacy put out there by critics of 40B is that repealing it will force Beacon Hill to replace the old law with something better.

What faith that shows in our far-sighted state lawmakers! After all, this is the same gang that can't even agree on a casino bill even when all the top legislative leaders and the governor say they are in favor of expanded gambling.

Good luck trying to get a new affordable housing law passed.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Scott Van Voorhis is a freelance writer who specializes in real estate and business issues.

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