Part two of a two-part series
AYER — When state Rep. James Eldridge, D-Acton, was elected to a third term in the House of Representatives, he began hosting forums across the district to hear what issues his constituents are concerned about.
He said the biggest issue by far is dissatisfaction with Chapter 40B, a law that allows developers to circumvent local zoning in communities with less than 10 percent affordable housing provided that at least 25 percent of the project is designated as affordable.
In response, Eldridge filed legislation that proposes several changes including modifications to how communities track progress toward the state’s affordable housing mandate.
One amendment would count affordable units from Chapter 40B developments twice when figuring out the progress toward the 10-percent mandate. That would include existing units as well and would address the recurring complaint of limited returns for communities from Chapter 40B developments, said Eldridge.
He’s also proposing that mobile homes be counted toward the affordable mandate.
“Right now, deed restrictions are required to call a unit affordable,” he said. “Most reasonable people agree that mobile homes fit the income guidelines for affordable.”
Passing those reforms is not a given, said Eldridge. He signed onto identical reforms two years ago that passed the House but not the Senate.
Eldridge attributed that to the state being in a wait-and-see mode with how Gov. Mitt Romney’s smart-growth incentives will increase affordable housing. The effects are small, said Eldridge, and the Legislature may be willing to pursue other reforms, though he re-iterated it’s not a given.
“There have been a number of efforts to reform Chapter 40B in recent years. I think the challenge is that communities that have been able to reach the 10 percent goal are less sympathetic to those that haven’t,” he said. “I think quite honestly, a lot of the cities look at the suburbs and feel they should do more to build affordable housing.
“I think it’s going to have to be a statewide strategy to educate all legislators and (Gov. Deval Patrick) on the issue,” he said.
If adopted, the reforms could address concerns voiced by Harvard resident Mort Miller, who became an anti-40B advocate after the town considered sponsoring a 40B near his Westcott Road home earlier in the year.
Miller conceded that some have considered the work to be driven by Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY). He acknowledged that concerns have been fueled by the prospect of having a dense settlement of approximately 40 units in a small area added to the rural neighborhood.
However, Miller said the group did its homework by posing questions about the effectiveness of the town donating property to receive just a handful of affordable units in return.
In the big picture, Miller said Chapter 40B drives a moving target for the 10 percent threshold, since it necessitates 75 percent market units in return. Plus, the municipal expenses of that growth and its effects on public safety and schools are borne by the town, he said.
The groundwork for addressing that issue is laid out in legislation filed by Eldridge that would allow communities to charge “mitigation” fees to developers to cover costs that result from additional housing. It’s an issue that’s unaddressed in Massachusetts General Law, and all attempts to raise it have been rebuffed, said Eldridge.
Another reform would change the state’s Chapter 70 school aid formula to provide more state aid for communities adding affordable housing. Under the revised formula, the municipality would receive the district’s education cost per pupil for each student in new affordable housing units.
Other reforms include giving all communities under the 10-percent affordable housing threshold an equal chance at state housing grants, increasing the deed restriction on Chapter 40B units to a minimum of 99 years and instituting a five-year prohibition on 40Bs for developers caught exceeding the state’s profit limitations. Also proposed is further environmental protection with 40Bs by prohibiting such developments within a 100-foot buffer area.
Overall, Eldridge said it’s possible the state will accept modifications to Chapter 40B, but is unlikely to do away with the law or its 10 percent affordable mandate. But whatever transpires with the reforms, he said the challenge is for suburban communities to create affordable housing in other ways to help convince the Legislature that Chapter 40B isn’t the best option.
Using his hometown of Acton as an example, Eldridge said there’s an active chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and the community is also converting an old school building into affordable units.
“Chapter 40B does produce affordable housing, and that’s why it’s so critical for communities to show they can produce housing in other ways,” he said. “If there’s going to be reforms to 40B that reduce the amount of housing that’s built, communities are going to have to put their money where their mouths are to support affordable housing.”