State lawmakers passed a bond bill that put $1.4 billion into affordable housing last week. And in doing so, they allowed two of their own to turn a bill funding housing for poor people into a vehicle for blocking the construction of housing for poor people.
Representative John Rogers and Senator Michael Rush attached a rider to the Legislature’s housing bond bill that effectively sinks a 296-unit affordable housing project in Norwood. Norwood has no legal power to block the development, which is being built under the state’s affordable housing law, but if the Rogers-Rush amendment makes it past the governor’s desk, the town will be able to squash the affordable housing project anyway.
The Norwood amendment reeks of petty backroom politics. The episode goes far deeper than any one local development feud, though. In using a vaguely worded amendment to make an unprecedented end-run around a decades-old affordable housing law, Norwood’s legislators are opening up a chaotic new front in the state’s housing wars.
Massachusetts suffers from abnormally high housing prices because the state adds new housing at roughly half the national rate, and it builds housing half as quickly as the rest of the country because cities and towns determine the pace they build at. Developers and state officials have one check on suburban development autonomy: Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable-housing law. The 1969 law allows builders of significant mixed-income housing developments to bypass local zoning in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is affordable.
Chapter 40B often sows discontent because it strikes an adversarial stance. Municipalities resent the loss of local control. Developers sometimes use the law as a cudgel, threatening to build 40B projects unless the projects they really want to build win local permits. The law is imperfect, but it remains a vital check on suburban antipathy toward dense mixed-income housing.
The episode goes far deeper than any one local development feud.
Norwood can’t do much to stop new 40B projects, since less than 6 percent of its housing stock is affordable under 40B guidelines. So even though town officials don’t like the 296-unit affordable housing development the Campanelli Companies is trying to build on 24 acres on the northern edge of town, they’re not supposed to be able to do much to block it. Recalcitrant towns in Norwood’s position usually fight affordable developments in court, suing over things like traffic or sewers. Norwood’s men on Beacon Hill took a more direct path. Instead of trying to duck the state affordability requirement, they gutted it.
The Rogers-Rush amendment didn’t mention the Norwood development. It said a developer couldn’t build large 40B developments on any parcel where local commercial tax incentives had been approved. It just happened that the amendment’s sponsors represent the only 40B site anyone could say with surety met that description. In debate last week, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said that legislative interference in individual development disputes “should be unacceptable.” Tarr was outvoted, but at least he spoke up; the House passed Rogers’s amendment without debate.
Rogers sent a statement to the local press decrying “developers roaming the Commonwealth unbridled, unimpeded, unchecked, with no accountability to the community.” He was more measured on a phone call Friday, ticking off a laundry list of affordable housing bills he’d worked on before defending the bid to exempt the Campanelli parcel from Chapter 40B. Since the land had been previously targeted for a commercial tax break, he said, “it seems to be in bad faith to defy the agreement and propose housing there.”
The tax break Rogers and Norwood officials are complaining about only exists on paper. If Campanelli builds housing instead of an office building, the tax break wouldn’t apply. It’s a fig leaf, and not a sizable one at that. Town officials never raised the tax issue when the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the nonprofit that is underwriting financing for the Campanelli project, worked through the 40B application project.
Instead, it feels like Norwood resents the fact that it has to swallow the affordable development because the law says so. So the town’s legislators have taken a crayon to the law. Norwood has plenty of company in resenting Chapter 40B — not nearly enough to pass a repeal on the ballot, but enough to invite a torrent of underhanded loophole-writing on Beacon Hill. Legislators have already voted to turn one town’s grudge into an exemption from following the law. What’s to stop them now?
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.