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Let's take a closer look at metro-Boston housing hopes

The following analysis was written by John Belskis, a former Arlington resident who has long been involved in efforts to encourage affordable housing:

Arlington vua Google Earth: Your Town, Your Future

I have a somewhat different view of the offerings proposed by the Metro Mayors Coalition. First, I acknowledge that there is a very serious problem with the availability of affordable housing. But I also have a view that says efforts to improve it have unfortunately been an abdication of responsibility by our Legislature and the agencies involved.

Those of you that know me, recognize that as a citizen activist, I've spent over 20 years focused on affordable-housing issues, not only on the municipal side, but also on the State of Massachusetts side. It's easy to be concerned when your state is No. 47 of the 50 in the production of affordable housing. Some feel we've made progress as when I first got involved we were No. 49. (Only Mississippi was lower.)

The coalition proposes the building of 185,000 units of housing over the region over the next 12 years. (Note that it didn't say affordable housing!) If you do the math, that would be about 126 units per year in each of the 122 cities and towns that make up the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Now, we all know that many of the MSA towns just cannot support that level of development and density.

Just as Mayor Walsh is doing and proposing, you place them where the demand really exists and where there is infrastructure and available land. Unfortunately, since the late 1980s, the major cities clung to their ubiquitous 10-percent-plus level of affordable housing and were able to coast, when they should have been building.

Food for thought, while such towns as Billerica, Chelmsford or Stoughton were being with abusive comprehensive permits by a development industry making greedy profits. The state inspector general cited audits showing profits well over the allowed profit level. From 2007 to 2014, there was actually a decline in the Subsidized Housing Inventory (SHI) of affordable units in Boston, Springfield, Lowell and Lynn.

So let's look at the coalition and the 10 guiding principals from the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission (MAPC).

-- Stakeholder and municipal engagement. Broad, inclusive outreach to local officials and residents, to understand the problem.

When will MAPC and the many involved agencies reach out to the Legislature where the solutions need attention? It's a statewide problem, not one of individual cities and towns.

-- Housing preservation. This includes protecting existing affordable units and repairing older and smaller homes to minimize tear-downs.

When will the MAPC and the agencies seek affordable units created with comprehensive permits in perpetuity, so we can stop the continuing loss of units because of expiring use, as their government loans are retired? Hundreds of millions are budgeted almost annually to buy back – preserve? -- these units, money that could have been used to build new units if we had perpetuity.

-- Housing affordability, for low- moderate- and middle-income households.

There is nothing in the current laws, regulations or even in this proposal that offers how that type of distribution may be obtained. For that matter, even in the so-called affordable-housing 40B law, only 10 percent of our entire population would qualify or be able to obtain a subsidized-housing unit.

-- Housing stability. Addressing extreme cost burdens, minimize the risk of displacement, reducing evictions, eliminating unfair rental practices, creating permanent housing for homeless residents and ensuring safety and stability.

A bold statement but none of this is realistic without meaningful support from the Legislature, which in the past three sessions has failed to move any of the hundreds of affordable comprehensive permit bills out of committee to the floor for debate and a recorded vote.

-- Fair housing. Abolishing discrimination against tenants and buyers and advancing equitable access to housing opportunities for everyone.

We have all kinds of laws and regulations on the books in this regard, are we saying they are not being followed and if not, why not?

I won't make any comment on the last four, until the Legislature and agencies stop catering to the development industry and the lobbyists representing it and make some effort to initiate and support meaningful legislation and housing programs like 46 other states have done, any comment would be meaningless.

-- Housing diversity, at a range of scales and a unit mix inclusive of multiple bedrooms.

-- Housing design that incorporates features accessible to all ages and abilities.

-- Housing location, so residents can access areas that offer open space and activities as part of a community.

-- Complete neighbourhoods. Approach housing as a holistic part of community building, which includes a mix of land uses and access to open space, and a range of activity available through the day and evening.

Last but not least, the housing master plan prepared for Arlington, and cited as its existence being a protection against 40B-type comprehensive permits, is an insult to a town that has long ago passed laws and regulations that required inclusionary zoning for all projects over six units, required that all affordable units were deed restricted as affordable in perpetuity, and we authorized and funded a housing corporation that has created significant numbers of affordable units. None of these laws and regulations have been emulated or supported by our state Legislature or the many involved agencies. This for a town that is denser that all except the major cities and has more SHI units per capita than any city or town in the state.

A final point, the numbers I offer are based on figures and information that were obtained from the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD). An associate and I had to appeal to Secretary of State Galvin to obtain them. It took months of analysis and compilation to discover that the number of units created under MGL c40B were significantly lower than the numbers being quoted, as duplications were rampant.

Even more interesting was the discovery that the Housing Appeals Committee was awarding 40B projects to the developers on the basis that there was a regional need when in fact, the MSA region was over the ubiquitous 10-percent objective. We also had to get Secretary Galvin's involvement to force DHCD to acknowledge that the region was in fact the MSA.

The acid test to this dissertation is the fact that not one of our legislators or any other legislator signed on as a sponsor of the bill filed at my request seeking an increased percentage of affordable units required in order to qualify for a comprehensive permit. Connecticut enacted such an increase more than five years ago. I am attempting to refile this bill in the next session. Let's see what kind of support it receives from the MAPC, DHCD, CHAPA MassHousing etc., etc., and especially all of the legislators that represent Arlington and the other MSA region cities and towns.


This viewpoint was published Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.

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