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Newton explores creating housing trust to help build a more affordable city

City Hall in Newton.
City Hall in Newton.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

As housing costs soar throughout the region, Newton officials are considering whether to form a trust to help support affordable housing in the city.

The proposal, still in its early stages, calls for Newton to create a trust where the city could set aside money to purchase property or invest in the development of affordable housing.

City Council president Susan Albright, who supports the measure, said the city must do more to create housing that is within reach of people employed by local businesses.

“We really haven’t attacked the lower end of affordability, and frankly, we have a lot of people who work in Newton, they work in restaurants, they work in hotels ... and we make them commute for an hour to get here, and an hour to get home,” Albright said. “So it makes sense — ethically and practically — to try and create this level of affordable housing in Newton.”

Newton’s Planning Department is exploring how a trust could work, and is expected to make recommendations to councilors in a few months, Albright said.

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More than 100 cities and towns across the state have established affordable housing trusts, said Shelly Goehring, senior program manager with Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that supports and finances affordable housing.

Overseeing each trust is a board of trustees. The funds can be spent on a range of efforts, such as providing rent assistance to low- and moderate-income households or helping to support developers who build affordable housing.

Under the state’s Community Preservation Act, cities and towns can fund affordable housing, open space, and historic preservation through a property tax surcharge. Many communities, including Cambridge and Somerville, devote a portion of their CPA funds to their affordable housing trusts, Goehring said.

Money also can come from other sources, such as funding from municipal budgets and tax overrides.

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One advantage of a housing trust is that it can move relatively quickly to use its funds. “That’s a key reason why communities create a trust — they just respond more nimbly, and in the real estate market, that can be really important,” Goehring said.

An affordable housing trust also can research local housing issues and educate a community about the issues facing residents, Goehring said.

“Zoning and development is very local in Massachusetts, and that means in many communities, they put restrictions on what can happen, and the kind of housing that can be built,” she said. “And that directly impacts the affordability of housing in our communities, and whether our communities have diverse housing options.”

Melrose, Westborough, and Arlington established housing trusts of their own during the fall.

Jen Grigoraitis, president of the Melrose City Council, said city officials worked together to create an affordable housing trust in September. The new trustees will be able to look “holistically and strategically at the development of affordable housing in our community,” she said.

Rising costs of housing are affecting older residents who live on fixed incomes, as well as younger residents who find it hard to afford the city where they grew up, she said.

“The only way you can truly be open for all is if you provide the opportunity to everyone to get their foot in the door,” she said.

Westborough established a housing trust in November, said Allen Edinberg, a member of the Board of Selectmen who also will serve as a trustee.

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A range of housing options bolsters a community’s tax base, while also fostering job growth, he said.

“You want your teachers, police, and firefighters to be able to afford to live in the town they serve ... but you also want the local shop owner, or salon owner, and [their] staff, to be able to live in town,” he said. “That provides a stronger community.”

Arlington’s Town Meeting approved the establishment of an affordable housing trust fund in November, said Jennifer Raitt, director of the town’s Department of Planning and Community Development.

Arlington’s trust is expected to work closely with existing organizations, including the town’s Housing Authority and the nonprofit Housing Corporation of Arlington, she said. The trust is also expected to conduct public outreach as it develops goals for an action plan.

Creating enough affordable housing in the Boston area was a priority for many leaders and advocates even before the pandemic. Raitt said COVID-19 has revealed just how pressing these issues are, particularly as lost income has led to rampant housing instability.

“There is great demand for people ... to have more affordable options,” Raitt said. “It’s a regional issue.”

In Newton, worries over housing affordability have grown for years, fostering community groups that have advocated for lower-cost homes.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a recent interview she is open to exploring the idea of an affordable housing trust.

“I think the City Council and I should absolutely look at a wide variety of mechanisms to increase affordable housing, including analyzing whether an affordable housing trust would work well here in Newton,” Fuller said.

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John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.