West

The Argument

Newton’s tear-down moratorium

Do you support a tear-down moratorium in Newton that would prohibit the demolition of one- and two-family homes, and put a hold on additions of more than 20 percent of the existing home for a specific period of time?

YES

Julia Malakie, Newton resident, Tree Advocate, Village 14 blogger

We need to stop the bleeding while we decide how to treat the patient. The administration touts “zoning reform” as the answer to concerns about development. But while zoning reform inches along, years behind schedule, we’re losing our moderately priced “starter” homes (many marketed as “development opportunities”) as well as historically significant ones like the recently demolished Wetherell House, and the Gothic Revival cottage at 111 Webster Park, whose demolition delay expires in July 2015.

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Data confirms what I see happening in my neighborhood and citywide.

A Planning Department memo dated Aug. 1, 2014, states that full demolition permits issued increased from 66 in fiscal 2010 to 102 in fiscal 2014, with 629 full house demolitions since fiscal 2006.

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Considering new builds that replaced demolished houses from Jan. 1, 2012, to Nov. 21, 2013 (complete data set), the median house size more than doubles and the median selling price is more than 2.7 times higher than the original selling price, based on the assessor’s office data.

A moratorium through the end of 2015 would provide breathing room to address zoning issues about “by right” size and scale of new construction and mega-additions, conversion of single-family to multifamily structures, and more. These issues have been on the docket for years and are only now being considered for action because of the moratorium threat. Zoning Reform Phase 1 is already two years behind schedule, and Phase 2 (not yet started) was projected at an additional two to three years. In that time, hundreds more houses will likely be replaced.

Why is this a problem? We’re losing the smaller houses that help make Newton more socioeconomically diverse than nearby towns. In all price ranges we are losing attractive Capes, bungalows, Colonials, even Tudors, which contribute to the city’s character. We’re losing trees and open space, the very qualities that prompt many people to choose Newton, as new houses are built to minimum setback and maximum square footage.

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And what about the financial impact? The administration sees higher tax revenue from development. But more dwellings result in more residents, more traffic, and less green space. Also, enlarging smaller homes means fewer houses appropriate for “aging in place,” and more empty-nesters leaving Newton to avoid the taxes on their large houses. Supply of houses appealing to singles will shrink. The replacement properties will spend more years costing more in municipal services than they generate in tax revenue, leading to more override requests.

Will a moratorium inhibit sales? No. Owners are not prevented from selling during the moratorium. Houses will still attract offers from people who wish to live in them, and will give families who want to move here an opportunity that would otherwise go to developers.

NO

Micéal Chamberlain, Newton resident, Principal, Historic Homes, Inc.

I can understand people’s concerns about the loss of character and diversity of housing in Newton, but I believe the proposed demolition and tear-down moratorium is totally the wrong approach.

The moratorium would put a halt on all renovations more than 20 percent of the existing home, regardless of lot size. This is unfair to homeowners who need to create additional space for their families. Who will want to purchase a home in Newton with this uncertainty hanging over their heads? There already exists less appetite from buyers to purchase older homes that need work, and this proposal, if passed, will only exacerbate the problem and drive home values lower.

It is an unrealistic notion to think that buyers who purchase a home in Newton will be happy to live in them just as they are. Having worked in real estate for more than 25 years, I know that simply is not the case. Layouts in many of the older homes do not fit today’s living styles, systems are out of date, and many need extensive renovation. Home buyers today seek and want family rooms that connect to the kitchen, mudrooms, and playrooms. If these spaces cannot be achieved within the existing footprint, which in most cases they cannot, it requires adding additional space.

If the moratorium is enacted, homeowners who want to sell will have difficulty, as there are too many unknowns for buyers. Selling prices have nowhere to go but down as inventory builds up. Is this fair for the sellers who selected Newton as the place to call home and expected their investment to grow?

The economic impact of the moratorium goes far beyond the homeowners. It will be a loss of income for builders, building supply companies, architects, designers, tradesmen and women, and realtors, many of who live in Newton.

As much as many of us are opposed to change, the reality is there are some homes that fall into the classification of “tear downs” because it is cost prohibitive to renovate. With the cost of land and today’s construction prices, it makes more sense in many cases to start from the ground up. The “tear-down homes” will be more difficult to sell and will languish on the market until the outcome of the moratorium is not in doubt.

If one wants to protect home values, this knee-jerk response is not the answer. We need a more design-oriented approach to zoning.

Let Newton’s Planning Department complete the work they have already begun in developing a village/neighborhood master plan for zoning. It’s time to leave this work squarely in the hands of educated professionals.

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