Affordable housing plans shaking up the suburbs
As the demand rises for lower-cost homes and apartments in Boston’s western suburbs, builders from Brookline to Ashland are proposing a flurry of multifamily developments under the state’s affordable housing law.
But the plans are meeting resistance in some neighborhoods traditionally dominated by single-family homes.
At a recent meeting in Wellesley, a longtime resident urged selectmen to “take control” of the plans being pitched under Chapter 40B, a state law that waives some local zoning in favor of affordable housing.
“I believe we have a target on our back,” said Scott Fraser, who has lived in town for 40 years and objects to a potential development near his home.
Wellesley is facing proposals for Great Plain Avenue, Stearns Road, Worcester Street (Route 9), and Weston Road that would together add more than 250 units of market-rate and affordable housing to town, according to local officials.
Chapter 40B requires local zoning boards to approve housing developments under flexible rules if 20 to 25 percent of the units are set aside as affordable. Communities are exempt from the statute if at least 10 percent of their housing stock is considered affordable.
“Certainly, the number of 40Bs we are potentially anticipating has [made] affordable housing a greater priority,” said Meghan C. Jop, Wellesley’s assistant executive director.
About 6.2 percent of Wellesley’s housing inventory is considered affordable, and Jop said a housing plan would help show that the town has a road map for building more. “We will come up with strategies that developers or the town could pursue to develop housing,” she said.
Brookline, which had about 10 proposals under Chapter 40B simultaneously, succeeded in getting its own local plan approved by state housing officials earlier this year.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development determined that Brookline was making sufficient progress in building affordable homes, and it allowed the town the option to decline new 40B proposals through the rest of the year. About 8.6 percent of Brookline’s housing stock is affordable.
Land cost may contribute to developers’ consideration of larger projects, said Paul Yorkis, president of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors. The cost of land acquisition, infrastructure, construction, and other expenses determine whether developers get a return on their investments, he said.
“In the end, the developer needs to come out with enough funds so he or she can go on to the next project,” said Yorkis, who also owns Medway-based Patriot Real Estate.
Leif Rosseland, regional vice president of the Metrowest and Western Massachusetts region for Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in New England, said builders focus on getting the most out of a project.
“For a developer/builder, they will look at a parcel of land . . . and see how they can maximize it to their benefit,” he said.
Land costs contributed to an influx of Chapter 40B developments proposed in Needham, according to town manager Kate Fitzpatrick, including the 136-unit Modera Needham now under construction on Greendale Avenue. It will replace two single-family homes on six acres.
“The cost of land in our community is high, and we [were] seeing developers pick up fairly small parcels and build as many units under 40B as possible,” Fitzpatrick said.
About 12 percent of Needham’s housing stock now meets affordability thresholds, and developers can no longer propose projects that seek to waive local zoning, Fitzpatrick said.
Lars Unhjem, vice president of development for Mill Creek Residential’s Boston office, whose firm proposed the Modera Needham project, said the real driver of the project wasn’t cost, but ensuring that it worked for that location.
Mill Creek’s original proposal called for 268 apartments, Unhjem said. After negotiations, he said, the complex was reduced to 136 units, of which 34 will be affordable.
Connie Leacock, who lives in the neighborhood, remembered the community opposition to the Modera project when it was proposed a few years ago. For her, the scope of the development was too big for a neighborhood of single-family homes.
“I realize that Needham is very pricey and has a good school district. . . . people do want to live here,” said Leacock. “You can’t keep change away, but it did annoy me that these developers used the 40B law to ram it down our throats.”
She praised town officials for working to reduce the development’s size. And with the state’s improvement of a nearby intersection, she said, the traffic impact during construction hasn’t been as bad as she expected.
Town officials in Ashland, meanwhile, are trying to rein in the size of a proposed 40B development along Route 135.
Southborough-based Capital Group Properties is appealing a 2016 decision by Ashland’s zoning board of appeals to limit a development’s size to 99 units instead of the 132 units proposed, said John Trefethen, the zoning board chairman.
William Depietri, company president, said his firm chose the West Union Street location because the town needs more affordable housing. About 3.7 percent of Ashland’s housing stock is considered affordable.
“We feel there is a need for it, a market for it,” Depietri said.
The project is under appeal with the state Housing Appeals Committee, and an abutter has also filed a lawsuit opposing the development, Trefethen said.
Trefethen said the developer’s plan would clear-cut most of the woods from a roughly six-acre property on Route 135 to make room for construction of two four-story buildings and a parking lot for about 200 vehicles.
He said a Chapter 40B development has the potential to put two interests at odds with each other: housing and neighborhood preservation.
“Chapter 40B allows a developer to come into a neighborhood and potentially significantly change the character of a neighborhood,” said Trefethen. “Residents may be resistant to that, even if they support affordable housing in general.”
But Depietri criticized Ashland officials for not doing more to create affordable housing in town, and for creating “roadblocks” that slowed the permitting process. He said local officials should be encouraging more affordable developments, if for no other reason than to regain more control over them.
“If they take initiative to create affordable housing, they can turn down these projects,” he said.