Loosen ‘affordable’ housing rules?
BOSTON — Housing developers and Realtors urged lawmakers Tuesday not to dilute a major affordable housing law, while some municipal officials pushed for changes to how affordable units are counted toward a key threshold of 10 percent per community.
The issue has been a contentious one in recent years in Sunderland where town officials have resisted a proposed large apartment project that was supported by the state affordability rules.
Municipal officials tried to persuade lawmakers on the Housing Committee to reform a 43-year-old affordable housing law by allowing communities to count units that have approvals to build, but were delayed by developers for some reason.
Some lawmakers told their colleagues they would like communities to be able to count mobile homes and Section 8 federal housing units in the overall affordable housing percentage, which dictates whether developers are allowed to seek comprehensive permits for housing developments that may not sync up with local zoning rules.
The law, known as Chapter 40B, makes it easier for multi-unit developments to be built in communities where less than 10 percent of the stock is considered affordable, as long as some of the new units are offered to low and moderate-income individuals. Voters in 2010 rejected a repeal effort at the ballot.
Andrew Maylor, town manager in North Andover, said the number of permitted projects that do not get built creates uncertainty for the town.
“A real concern is our inability to plan for the future and plan for all forms of housing, not just affordable housing,” he said.
Maylor said town officials foresee the town will hit 11.9 percent in affordable housing units, or higher because of the many undeveloped tracks of land that could be enticing to developers.
During the Great Recession, many developers could not secure financing for already-approved projects, and received permit extensions. Meanwhile, other developers came in with new affordable housing applications, putting towns in difficult situations, Maylor and other local officials said.
The new projects, when combined with the projects already approved and waiting to be built, push many communities above their 10 percent affordable housing minimum set by Chapter 40B, according to local officials.
Rep. Susan Gifford, R-Wareham, wants communities to be able to count mobile homes as affordable units. In Wareham, there are more than 1,000 mobile homes that are not counted in the affordable stock, she said.
“Clearly I don’t think anyone can dispute these are not affordable housing units,” Gifford said.
Gifford said while 40B was written “with the best of intentions,” over time it has become a detriment to some communities.
Gifford filed legislation (H 1115) that would change the definition of affordable housing to include mobile homes, group homes and in-law apartments. She has proposed the change for several legislative sessions, without success.
“I hope this committee will take a look at the information and understand there are communities that have affordable housing and cannot count them as such,” Gifford said.
Rep. Christopher Walsh, D-Framingham, advocated for legislation (H 1167) he filed that would count Section 8 subsidized housing in a communities’ affordable housing count.
“The actual number of affordable units is actually being obscured by the way we count,” he said.
During the hearing, advocates argued the law is more important than ever and needs to be strengthened.
While the housing market rebounded in 2013 with rising home prices and sales, a lack of affordable housing hinders the recovery, according to a report released earlier this month.
Affordability remains a problem, especially for renters, the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University reported.
Researchers reported the overall cost of living in Greater Boston has increased twice as fast as median homeowner household income since 2005, and three times faster than the median income of renter households.
Mike McDonough, general counsel for the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, told lawmakers homeownership is out of reach for many residents because of the lack of affordable housing.
“We are seeing people leave this state because of the cost of homes in Massachusetts,” McDonough said.
Some testifying during the hearing argued the 10 percent goal is a reasonable number that many communities have achieved with no problem.
David Wluka, a realtor, said communities have an obligation to provide affordable housing, but they can decide where they want it to be if they plan.
“Other communities feel put upon,” he said.