Brookline is experiencing the real estate equivalent of last call at a bar — with all the frantic jockeying and rushed decisions that entails. Over the past year, companies have been racing to put in one final application to build large housing developments in the town, because they realize the window of opportunity is likely to slam shut in the near future.
The bartender, as it were, is the town’s three-member Zoning Board of Appeals — and its volunteer members feel overwhelmed by the six applications under review currently and four more in the pipeline. That’s the impetus behind the town’s unprecedented request to the state for a six-month moratorium on new applications for affordable-housing developments within its borders, which the town selectmen sent to state agencies on Thursday.
“It’s kind of burning them out,” Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the board of selectmen, said of the ZBA members and the four town employees reviewing the applications. Under state requirements, all of those applications must be decided within six months of filing. The board has been meeting three days a week, he said, compared to once or twice a month previously, and needs some breathing room to clear the backlog.
The state appears never to have granted such a blanket moratorium, and it shouldn’t start now. Brookline is in a tough situation, but agreeing to the town’s plea would poke a hole in the state’s affordable housing law and set a bad precedent. If state agencies decide to shield one municipality from all new applicants, even for a limited period of time, other towns are bound to come forward with their own tales of woe demanding similar treatment. Compliance with the housing law strains municipalities across the Commonwealth, but even if it means hiring or reassigning more staff to process applications, they need to find ways to comply.
Still, there is another way, well short of a moratorium, that the state could provide some temporary relief to Brookline. As the selectmen pointed out, a regulation does exist that’s meant to help municipalities cope with a sudden glut of applications in an orderly fashion, by limiting the number it must consider simultaneously. That rule wouldn’t exist if it violated the spirit of the housing law, and the state should find a way to help Brookline take advantage of it.
A confluence of events has put Brookline into its current predicament. As with all Massachusetts municipalities, state law requires that at least 10 percent of housing in Brookline meet affordability standards. In towns that don’t reach that threshold, developers are entitled to circumvent local zoning for residential developments as long as some of the apartments they build are affordable.
Known as Chapter 40B, the law is a vital protection to ensure that municipalities don’t thwart affordable housing through restrictive zoning or plain old NIMBYism. Voters in Brookline agree: In a 2010 referendum, they overwhelmingly supported keeping 40B.
And Brookline has come oh-so-close to meeting the goal: About 9 percent of housing in the town counts as affordable, a better record than some of its suburban peers (ahem, Newton; seriously, Belmont?). But as the town inches closer to 10 percent, developers have realized that if they ever want to make use of 40B in Brookline, now is the time. Once the town reaches the magic number, developers will lose their ability to get around the zoning code.
Thus, the stampede to the state with plans like a 21-story tower in Coolidge Corner, just across the street from another proposal for a 14-story tower. In most Massachusetts communities, so many applications rolling in at the same time would already have triggered the regulation allowing towns to delay temporarily their consideration of new ones. That rule adjusts only when the clock on the six-month deadline starts ticking; towns still have to consider all projects, in order of application, as soon as space opens on their docket. Due to the way the regulation is crafted, though, it does not help Brookline — even though it’s juggling six concurrent applications — because of the town’s size.
Allowing Brookline to tap into the existing procedures for staying applications would not prevent any developer from filing to build in Brookline, would not amount to a moratorium, and would not undermine 40B. An outright freeze on new affordable housing applicants in Brookline is unwarranted, but asking developers to wait in a manageable line seems perfectly reasonable.