[Hpn] Affordable housing fails again

William Charles Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 15 Aug 2004 08:36:24 -0400


August 15, 2004
Lawmakers say compromise bill could be brokered
By DAVID KIBBE
TIMES BOSTON BUREAU
BOSTON - Reforming the state's affordable housing law was supposed to be one
of the priorities of the two-year legislative session that ended last month,
but state lawmakers failed to agree on changes before the clock ran out.
As a result, the controversial law, which is credited with the construction
of 30,000 affordable homes and apartments since 1969 but has angered many
town officials who believe it robs them of the power to plan development in
their communities, will likely remain intact until next year.
The Chapter 40B housing law allows developers to supersede local zoning in
cities and towns with less than 10 percent affordable housing, as long as 25
percent of a project is deemed affordable in relation to market sale and
rental prices. Buyers and renters qualify under income guidelines based on
median incomes in their town and surrounding area.
Town officials often complain that their schools, roads and municipal
services are swamped by the size of some Chapter 40B developments. For
instance, an apartment or condominium complex can number in the hundreds of
units. They also say developers use the threat of Chapter 40B as leverage if
towns balk at their original plans. There have been cases where developers
interested in creating retail or other commercial property will float out a
housing development under Chapter 40B to make the commercial project seem
more palatable to town planners.
A bill in the works
The housing law has been hotly debated for years, but this year, action
seemed inevitable.
Gov. Mitt Romney's task force, a legislative commission and housing
advocates thought they had struck a compromise to allow more towns to become
exempt from the law if they showed annual progress toward the 10 percent
goal, even if they fell short of it.
The House passed the bill in May, 151 to 1. Housing advocates said the
agreement fell apart because the House amended the bill to make it even
easier for towns to become exempt from the law, such as by counting half the
mobile homes in a town toward the 10 percent goal for the first time.
The revised bill would have automatically exempted Wareham, Wellfleet and 15
other towns from the law.
Both Sen. Marc R. Pacheco, D-Taunton, and Rep. Susan Williams Gifford,
R-Wareham, fought to count mobile homes. They both represent Wareham, which
has 1,100 mobile homes. But without counting any of those homes, Wareham's
share of affordable housing is only 5.5 percent.
Pacheco said the bill was not tripped up by a count of mobile homes, which
the House and Senate support. He said it was hung up over other House
changes that were opposed by housing advocates. They included giving more
power to planning boards to decide Chapter 40B appeals and a new exemption
for towns that have 1.5 percent of their land in use as affordable housing.
Pacheco hoped that a compromise could be achieved before the end of the
year.
However, after July 31, the Legislature meets in "informal" session and can
only pass laws by unanimous consent. The issue could fall to the next
Legislature when it returns to Beacon Hill on Jan. 1, after the fall
elections.
Protecting law's spirit
An attempt to broker a compromise in the final day of the session failed as
the clock struck midnight on July 31.
"We had hoped that the governor's task force recommendations would be
implemented," said Chris Norris, the assistant director of the Citizens
Housing and Planning Association, or CHAPA. "We had worked to get a good
bill through the Legislature. We were not supportive of the bill that passed
the House. We worked with the Senate to try to come up with a compromise.
Unfortunately, time ran out."
CHAPA opposed the House's changes to the bill, saying they would alter a
town's count of affordable housing without adding any new housing. And some
questioned whether mobile homes that could be moved to another town should
be counted as permanent, affordable housing units. Norris said
administrative regulations that the state approved two years ago - including
the counting of group homes and accessory apartments toward the 10 percent -
had already relieved some of the burden on towns.
He said other towns are aggressively working on plans to increase their
share of affordable housing, including Barnstable and Provincetown.
During the House debate in May, Rep. Shirley Gomes, R-Harwich, said she had
heard from constituents who feared the housing law would be watered down.
She urged her colleagues to approve the changes, while leaving the spirit of
the law intact.
"To weaken this law in the current environment is the single most damaging,
anti-housing action this Legislature could possibly take," Gomes warned.
Currently, only 33 cities and towns are exempt from the law, including New
Bedford and Fall River. The bill before the Legislature would have exempted
other towns from the law if they showed annual growth of 2 percent in
affordable housing, or if they had 0.5 percent annual growth and a
state-approved plan to reach 10 percent.
It also would have allowed towns to count owner-occupied units at twice the
rate of rental units and capped Chapter 40B developments of 20 or more units
at no more than three a year in any town.
Norris said the controversial issue isn't gone for good.
"I think it will come back again next year," he said.

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