State falls short on affordable housing

Construction drops over past five years

Construction of affordable housing units has stalled across the state over the last five years, and dropped sharply in many Boston suburbs, even as demand soars during a time of rapidly rising need.

Despite a state law that pushes communities to keep 10 percent of housing priced below market rates, Massachusetts’ affordable housing stock fell to 9.1 percent this year, according to state figures. That is down from 9.3 percent in 2006 after steady gains in the five years before that, the figures show.

Levels dropped or stayed the same in more than one hundred communities in the Boston area.

Housing advocates say the growing ranks of people who cannot afford to live in such an expensive region have led to dire shortages and that in some communities more than 100 people enter lotteries for a single subsidized apartment.


“The demand is phenomenal,’’ said Joseph Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, a coalition of community housing groups. “These are working families who can’t afford the market rates.’’

Affordable housing has suffered from the same calamities that have sapped the economy generally since the collapse of 2008, developers say. Financing has dried up and some government funding is more scarce.

“It’s like a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances,’’ said Lisa Alberghini, president of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs, a nonprofit affordable housing developer. “We’re at a point where all these things are coming to a head, and we’re facing a really grim situation.’’

While the real estate crisis and recession caused housing prices to fall in many communities, the same economic turmoil left many families priced out, unable to afford the area’s notoriously high rents and home prices.

“The economy killed affordable housing just like the market-rate,’’ said Bob Engler, an affordable housing developer and consultant. “In the heyday, you could go to the outlying towns and build an affordable development. But that all stopped.’’


Developments under the state’s so-called antisnob zoning law, which allows developers to sidestep local restrictions in communities with less than 10 percent below-market housing, must reserve at least 20 percent of units at below-market prices for lower earners.

The zoning law was enacted in 1969 to allow developers to bypass exclusionary zoning codes that prohibited multifamily developments.

Towns have long bristled at the law, and many say that the intense budget pressures of recent years have deepened resistance. More affordable homes, the thinking often goes, means more students in schools whose families don’t pay as much tax.

“It just intensifies the hostility,’’ Engler said. “People in New England hate density, and many towns are worried about the cost to the schools. It’s very discouraging.’’

Engler and other housing developers say some towns have aggressively fought developments, bottling up projects for years through legal challenges, driving up costs, and discouraging some builders from proposing affordable plans.

Advocates often express similar frustration but say the law has still helped create substantial amount of housing that otherwise would not have been built.

A ballot measure to eliminate the law came before voters last year; it was defeated.

“There’s more acceptance of affordable housing, and a greater awareness of why it’s important,’’ said Aaron Gornstein, who directs the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, a leading advocacy group. “But the permitting process remains very difficult.’’


While affordable housing construction has slowed in recent years, Gornstein and others said it made steady gains in the decade overall, rising 12 percent since 2001.

Gornstein and other advocates called for more government subsidies and tax credits for developers to break the logjam. With public support, more developers could convert old mills and abandoned lots into homes, they say.

“The demand for affordable rental housing is very, very strong,’’ Gornstein said. “We need more, and we’re constrained by a lack of public funding to make it happen.’’

In Jamaica Plain, 66 new apartments built in the past two years drew 2,900 applications. In Brookline, 20 new units drew more than 500.

“We eventually stopped taking them so we weren’t giving people false hope,’’ Alberghini said.

Advocates generally praised Massachusetts for funding housing subsidies during difficult economic times, noting that lawmakers last month doubled funding for housing tax credits.

The state housing department said the Patrick administration had allocated almost $700 million in housing subsidies and state and federal tax credits to affordable housing, and that the investment had created 9,000 affordable units.

Earlier this year, both Boston and Taunton received $22 million to renovate public housing developments, and some towns are setting money aside to subsidize affordable developments.

Susan Gittelman, who directs B’nai B’rith Housing New England, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, said some communities are trying to attract developments that younger residents, and older residents who are downsizing, can afford.

“We’ve seen a real interest in creating new housing,’’ she said. “This is an expensive place to live, and there are a lot of people who feel that very intensely on a day-to-day basis.’’


That may be, others say, but there remains a widespread belief in some wealthier towns that only those who can afford to live there should.

“I still think there’s a public opposition to affordable housing,’’ said Jody Kablack, director of planning and community development in Sudbury, which has 4.7 percent affordable housing. “It’s been slow going.’’

The town is now reviewing plans for a 120-unit apartment project that has drawn an outcry. It would be built on 35 acres of fields and woods.

But most local officials said the scarcity of affordable housing was a product of high land costs and limited available property, not residents who oppose it.

“We don’t have a lot of developments because we don’t have a lot of open land,’’ said Laura Wiener, director of housing in Arlington, which has 5.5 percent affordable housing.

Developers said that housing markets appear to be loosening, particularly for rental developments. A number of affordable developments, many of which were approved as many as five years ago, are poised to move forward.

That is welcome news for people who are out of work or who do not earn enough money to afford an unsubsidized apartment.

“For the bottom 30 percent, there’s an imbalance between what it costs to build housing and what people earn,’’ said Richard Thal, director of Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation.


Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.