Lynda Esquilin moved to Swampscott five years ago because she wanted her daughter, Aniyjah, to attend one of the best public schools in the state. To afford rent, Esquilin roomed with a cousin and took two jobs. She had a bright vision for Aniyjah’s future, and it depended on staying in Swampscott.
Almost everyone in this idyllic seaside town of 15,000 can agree that Swampscott, like many places in Eastern Massachusetts, needs more housing that regular people can afford. Governor Charlie Baker, himself a resident of Swampscott and former town selectman, has been pushing communities across the state to build more housing near public transit.
But a battle over a proposed apartment building half a mile from the governor’s home — one that ticks his development boxes and could directly benefit people like Esquilin — illustrates the enormous challenges the state faces in actually increasing the supply of such housing. As prices soar across the region, the need has become even more pressing.
The controversial project, called Elm Place, would be a five-story building with 120 mixed-income units, on what is now an industrial tract a block from the Swampscott Commuter Rail station. It has faced strong opposition since January from two resident groups — the Swampscott Equity Association and Concerned Citizens Against Elm Place — as well as the town’s Select Board, which urged the state not to allow the project to move forward. The Baker administration did not respond to requests for comment.
Esquilin, a single mother, is struggling to find a place she can afford. Raised by her grandparents in next-door Lynn, she moved to Swampscott because she loves the town’s peacefulness and the way her daughter can play outside after school. But her rent, now $2,000, has increased by $500 in the past eight months, she said.
“I would love to move in there,” Esquilin, 31, said of Elm Place. “There’s nothing that’s affordable. . . .That’s why there’s not a mix of races in Swampscott. Because there’s no affordable rent.”
According to 2020 census data, Swampscott is 85 percent white; Aniyjah, 12, is one of the only Black students in her school who is not, as Esquilin put it, “imported” through the METCO busing program. Lynn is 34 percent white. The two towns share a history: The northern, wealthier part of Lynn seceded in the 1850s to become Swampscott.
Swampscott rigidly enforces residency requirements for its schools. Esquilin briefly moved to an apartment in Lynn with Aniyjah, keeping her in a Swampscott school against district rules. They got in trouble and soon moved back to Swampscott. But for the next three years, a uniformed police officer came to the family’s home to verify that Aniyjah truly lived in Swampscott, according to Esquilin. (The Swampscott police and school superintendent’s office confirmed this policy.)
On the Swampscott side of the line, there’s very little affordable housing.
Over the past six months, the median price of a single-family home there was $749,000, according to data from North Shore Realtors. (That same figure was $512,000 statewide, according to the Warren Group.) And just 3.7 percent of housing units in the town are set aside for people with lower incomes, according to state data.
If a town drops below a 10 percent rate for low-income housing, developers are allowed to override typical zoning rules and build larger apartment complexes under the state’s so-called 40B law.
So Swampscott legally can’t stop Elm Place from being built. State officials approved the project’s eligibility in March, advising the developers to work more closely with the community. Neighbors can always make the process more difficult, which some Swampscott residents are trying to do.
They say they are not against affordable housing, and they are not even opposed to affordable housing on the Elm Place site. But they don’t like the project’s size, height, density, design, and lack of green space and parking spots. A letter from the Select Board to the state also contended that fire trucks may find it “extremely difficult and dangerous” to access the rear of the building. In the same letter, the Select Board said constructing more affordable housing is a “moral obligation” and a priority.
“It’s being done on the backs of local residents,” said Anne Driscoll, the chair of the Swampscott Equity Association, one of the two groups resisting the Elm Place project. She said she chose the group’s name because she wanted its message to be positive.
“We are not against affordable housing. We are for an affordable housing project that makes sense with that particular site,” she said.
Driscoll, who bought her home in Swampscott in the early 1980s, said the new building will add to the town’s traffic and overburden a neighborhood that already has several other lower-income housing developments, including a 38-unit senior building in an old elementary school.
In response to neighbors’ concerns, developer WinnCompanies said in July that it would cut eight apartments, reducing the total from 128 to 120, add parking spaces so there will be one per unit, lower the building’s height in some areas, and adopt a “New England coastal” architectural style.
Winn’s modifications are appreciated but not nearly enough, said Alison Leiby, who founded the Concerned Citizens Against Elm Place Facebook group and lives directly across from the proposed building with her husband and two young children.
“I want diversity in town, but I don’t want it all in one building,” said Leiby, adding that a 50-unit entirely income-restricted complex would be fine.
Like most affordable housing developers, Winn aims to build housing at a scale that makes financial sense and significantly increases a town’s housing stock.
“Big projects are really the only way to get enough units and to pay for them,” said Kimberly Martin-Epstein, chair of Swampscott’s Affordable Housing Trust.
Two thirds of the Elm Place units will be subsidized, with income requirements ranging from $28,000 to $114,000 for two-person households. Most units will be one-bedrooms, though there will also be two- and three-bedroom units, with the goal of housing commuters, local workers, and empty nesters, according to Winn. The project still needs to get a final design approved and required permits from local planning and zoning boards.
These sort of fights have raged for years across suburban towns in Greater Boston, with developers using the controversial 40B law to force apartment buildings through a thicket of zoning laws, while neighbors and often the towns themselves push back. Even the builders who rely on 40B acknowledge it’s an imperfect tool. But it’s one of the few the state has to build much-needed housing in the suburbs surrounding Boston.
“There’s just an undeniable fact that Massachusetts needs more affordable housing,” said Adam Stein, executive vice president of Winn’s WinnDevelopment branch. “It can be hard to understand or accept for homeowners. I think [neighbors’ concerns] are well intentioned.”