Norton’s call for change to the state’s affordable-housing law has sparked interest among other communities, but getting the proposal to fly at the State House could be difficult, officials say.
Norton selectmen aim to have housing developments that are approved under the Chapter 40B law, but not yet built, count toward a community’s quota of 10 percent affordable housing. Right now, a town can have several unbuilt 40B projects waiting in the wings, yet be unable to turn away new 40Bs that do not meet local zoning laws.
Norton Selectman Robert Kimball said area communities that would be most affected by the change include Braintree, Canton, Cohasset, Hingham, Lakeville, Norton, Pembroke, Raynham, Stoughton, and Westwood.
Chapter 40B developments need not conform to local zoning, particularly with regard to limits on the number of units per acre, a provision that has garnered criticism from suburban communities and support for Norton’s proposal.
“Sign me up,” said Pembroke Selectman Daniel Trabucco when he heard about the proposal. Pembroke falls just short of the 10 percent requirement, he said, and the town approved another project several years ago. It has not been built.
Chapter 40B, created to address a lack of affordable housing in Massachusetts, was nicknamed the “anti-snob” zoning law because it worked against a dynamic in which communities’ minimum lot sizes priced people out of the market.
But in practice, Trabucco said, it has resulted in “massive” developments that are not in tune with the community.
“That’s a greater issue than towns snubbing affordable housing,” he said. “It was originally anti-snob zoning . . . but what it’s become is a boon for developers.”
At the direction of the Norton Board of Selectmen, Town Manager Michael Yunits plans to send letters to potentially affected communities asking them to support the town’s bid for change, which includes both a home-rule petition – to change the rule for Norton only – and state legislation to amend the law for all.
John Stagnone, chairman of the Stoughton Board of Selectmen, said Stoughton has reached its 10 percent quota with already-built units, and has approved another development. Even so, he supports changes to the law.
“As long as the project is still alive, it should ultimately count toward your housing count, I would think, so I would be in support of that,” he said.
He said the state could implement the recommendations of a Chapter 40B task force established by then-Governor Mitt Romney in 2003 without damaging the intent of the law. He supports the intent, he said, because the state needs affordable housing.
Among the task force recommendations was an exception that would allow unbuilt 40B projects to remain on a community’s list of affordable housing – instead of being dropped from the list if no building permit were issued within a year – if the community showed the state Department of Housing and Community Development that it could not issue a building permit due to factors beyond its control.
Stagnone also said affordable rental rates established under the law’s formula are too high. In Stoughton, he said, affordable rents run about $1,250 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. He said affordable rent should be more like $900 or $1,000 for someone making $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
Units designated affordable are sold below market rates to households earning up to 80 percent of the area median income.
Not every local official worries about Chapter 40B.
Braintree Town Council president Charles Kokoros, whose district has an affordable-housing development, said the law gives young couples who would not otherwise have enough money for a down payment the opportunity to buy a home.
Although he said the density of such developments can put a strain on smaller, less-developed communities, he considers the 40B homes in his district a “decent development” with a good mix of people. “There really doesn’t seem to be any problem with it,” he said.
In Lakeville, where the population is about 11,000 compared with 36,000 in Braintree, Board of Selectmen chairman Derek Maksy said he does not view the developments as bad, but he would like to see approved 40Bs count toward a community’s quota, even if they are not built right away.
He said he “would definitely be inclined,” if asked, to present Norton’s proposal to his board.
Lakeville probably has affordable housing in the high 7 percent range now, he said, but the number was higher before an unbuilt development fell off the rolls.
The town has a Chapter 40R development, which counts toward the quota but requires a smart-growth zoning overlay district, near the Lakeville train station. It was originally proposed as a 40B condominium project, but was later changed to apartments, and has been “a little more troublesome” than expected in terms of police calls and turnover, Maksy said.
Still, 40B homes are far from a menace, he said. “I don’t see them as being bad projects. We’ve had good developers.”
The need for lower-cost housing is great, according to housing advocate Brenda Clement, executive director of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. “For lower-wage and moderate-wage workers, housing costs just don’t match up,” she said.
Clement said the law allows communities to ease some effects of dense development by working with developers on design elements. Communities can also direct development into village centers, she said.
She was not previously familiar with Norton’s proposal, but when asked about it, she said the idea might interfere with the creation of affordable housing.
Although the proposal has support in some town halls, winning passage at the state level is harder. Kimball, the Norton selectman, said he has no illusions.
“I have to tell you, I’m not optimistic that the state will make the change,” he said, adding that construction-related business interests were “obviously” part of the equation.
A movement to repeal Chapter 40B reached the ballot in 2010, but failed. State Representative Steven S. Howitt, a Seekonk Republican whose district includes part of Norton, said that the ballot question was “too much, too soon,” but that the law should be reviewed because circumstances change over time. Communities should have “a little bit more power” over the direction of 40B developments, he said.
Amendments to the 44-year-old law have been filed unsuccessfully many times.
Representative F. Jay Barrows, Republican of Mansfield, who represents part of Norton, said legislators file amendments every year, but the state has never substantially changed the law. He called the odds for Norton’s amendment “not very good.”
The town may have a better shot at winning the change through a home-rule petition, even though it would allow Norton to get special treatment, he said, because Norton faces special circumstances with the number of affordable-housing units built, approved, or proposed.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.