The pace of new federally funded affordable housing has slowed in Newton since Mayor Setti Warren took office, according to critics and city statistics, frustrating developers and leading the city’s housing program manager to resign.
Warren said his administration has taken a comprehensive approach to affordable housing, going beyond the limits of federal funding to encourage developments like Austin Street and at the MBTA’s Riverside Station, which are expected to add many affordable units to Newton’s housing stock. Federal funding has also declined in recent years, city officials said.
“Affordable housing is key to the city’s future,” said Warren, who is running for a second term as mayor against longtime Alderman Ted Hess-Mahan, after they took the top two spots in Tuesday’s preliminary election.
The affordable housing issue has taken center stage since Warren refused to authorize nearly $1.4 million in federal funds in June for Engine 6, a controversial proposal in Waban for people who have been chronically homeless.
A meeting organized by Engine 6 supporters will be held Monday night. If the mayor does not authorize funding by Oct. 3, according to the project’s developer, the proposal will not move forward.
“I understand that the mayor characterizes his administration as being advocates of affordable housing. However, I still see that there are problems in realizing the affordable housing goals the city has identified,” said Trisha Guditz, a 14-year city employee who worked as Newton’s housing program manager before resigning last month.
“I came to feel as though it was getting harder and harder for me to do affordable housing work that I really believed in,” said Guditz, who administered federal funding for affordable housing in the city. “I felt that there were institutional obstacles within the city that were making it more difficult for projects to get funded, and for programs to be able to run efficiently and effectively.”
City officials declined to comment on Guditz’s resignation.
Warren has approved federal and local Community Preservation Act funding for the development of five new units of affordable housing since he entered office on Jan. 1, 2010, according to city statistics. Former Mayor David Cohen approved funding for 16 units in his last term, and 35 units in his previous term.
Warren has approved $2.1 million in funds for housing development — less than half of what Cohen approved in his last term, and less than a quarter of what Cohen approved in the term before that.
According to figures from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and Newton’s chief financial officer, the city received about $3 million in grants annually under Cohen and about $2 million annually under Warren.
Warren also inherited Cohen’s budget when he began his term, said the city’s chief financial officer, Maureen Lemieux, so he has had control over fewer budget cycles.
According to the city’s director of planning and development, some units approved by Cohen were funded under Warren’s administration. Both administrations also created affordable housing solely using CPA funds, but those numbers were not immediately available.
“I believe that if, as mayor, you’re truly committed to diversity, that includes economic diversity,” said Cohen. “You have to be for affordable housing. If you’re really committed to moving social justice forward, as mayor, housing has to be high on your list of important priorities.”
According to state statistics, 7.5 percent of Newton’s housing stock is included in the state’s Subsidized Housing Inventory, a slight drop from 2010, when the city’s figure was 7.7 percent. In 1997, the year before Cohen took office, 4.9 percent of the city’s housing qualified as affordable housing. The standard under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law is 10 percent.
Warren said his approach to affordable housing comes directly from the city’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2007, which notes that Newton has limited land available for building new affordable housing, and suggests “bringing affordability to existing housing . . . rather than wholly relying upon new construction.”
Simply looking at how many units the city has approved for federal grant money, said Warren, does not tell the whole story.
“What we’ve done is we have a three-pronged strategy to create more affordable housing that fits within Newton and also fits within our approach on development,” he said.
Zoning overhaul, proactive development, and maximizing the use of federal dollars have built a solid foundation for affordable housing in the city, he said. Projects proposed for Riverside and on a city-owned lot on Austin Street, he said, could add up to 69 units of affordable housing.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve done,” Warren said.
Hess-Mahan, who will challenge Warren in the Nov. 5 election, said the administration cannot claim full credit for projects it does not help fund.
“Riverside hasn’t passed yet, and Austin Street isn’t off the drawing board,” said Hess-Mahan, who is a member of the Newton Fair Housing Committee, and former president of CAN-DO, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. “You can’t just point to a developer’s 40B project and claim an accomplishment for that, as though you’re responsible for the sun rising.”
Josephine McNeil, executive director of CAN-DO, said she has been building affordable housing in Newton for about 20 years, and under Warren, the process has grown more difficult. In particular, more stringent bidding guidelines the city has adopted have slowed the process, she said.
“I don’t understand. Nobody understands what this is about,” said McNeil. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
The new guidelines, implemented last year, require affordable-housing developers and contractors with the city’s housing rehabilitation program that receive federal and state funds to submit sealed bids for any project costing more than $25,000, and award the contract to the lowest responsive and responsible bidder. Previously, those developers were allowed to follow a less stringent competitive bidding process.
McNeil and other developers affected say the new guidelines will slow the process and make it more expensive.
Lemieux said the change in policy is an effort to make sure federal money is spent responsibly, transparently, and fairly. It was prompted by a 2011 audit of Waltham’s affordable housing procurement processes, she said, which found that procedures were not in place to effectively monitor the use of federal grants.
“This is the public’s money, this is not our money,” said Lemieux, who said the guidelines are similar to those that govern all other city spending. The new guidelines may have saved Newton up to $156,241 on seven rehabilitation projects over a four-month period this year, according to the city’s chief procurement officer.
The city has about $2.1 million federal dollars available for affordable housing, and has received almost $4 million worth of requests, including the application for $1.4 million for Engine 6.
Warren has said he will not approve the funding by Oct. 3, when the purchase and sale agreement the developer signed to buy the building will expire.