HARVARD — What is “workforce housing” and what does that term mean with regard to Devens and its surrounding towns?
That’s one question being probed by the town’s Devens Economic Analysis Team, which has been digging into the data surrounding the proposed Vicksburg Square project on Devens.
Boston-based Trinity Financial is the developer chosen by MassDevelopment to turn the hulking complex into a 246- unit apartment complex. This fall Trinity will ask the town meetings of each of the three Devens towns — Ayer, Harvard and Shirley — to approve a zoning change that will permit the residential reuse of the buildings that are now zoned for “innovation and technology” uses exclusively.
Trinity proposes that four of every five units would be have “affordable” rents for those who make no greater than 60 percent of the average median income for this area. Though the project will straddle the Ayer and Harvard town line, Trinity doesn’t deem Harvard to be part of its “primary” market for the housing. Part of the DEAT data cull has been to examine just who would fit the developer’s target tenant profile.
The income ranges allowed vary according to unit size. For a single person, likely to live in a one-bedroom unit, the acceptable income range is between $15,703 and $38,580. For a couple, the same floor applies but the cap is set at $44,100. For a family of three, the permissible income range is from $18,103 to $49,620. And for a family of four, the income range for an “affordable” unit is between $18,103 and $55,080.
Department by department, DEAT is culling municipal employee data to see what town workers may fall within those parameters. DPW salaries were examined at the Aug. 5 DEAT meeting. Of 10 DPW employees, nine would qualify to live in the “affordable” Vicksburg Square units, based on an assumption that they were the sole breadwinner in the household in so far as the income guidelines.
But using the same rough math and based on fiscal 2011 figures, of the 102 school teachers in the Harvard School district, only 14 teachers would qualify for the Vicksburg Square housing. The other 88 already earn outside of the income parameters.
Largely, this is because the schools hire experienced teachers. “They don’t like to hire low,” said Finance Committee member Steve Colwell. “Generally they go towards the middle and generally they don’t come in here with zero experience.” Again, the guestimate is based on the teachers’ salary alone, not taking into account other household members who could boost the salary into ineligibility for tenancy at Vicksburg Square.
Still to be compiled is data on police officers and dispatchers. “We’re just trying to paint a picture here,” said DEAT Chairman Victor Normand. “We don’t have the time and resources to do an absolute analysis of every department.”
Meanwhile, others are assisting by trying to gather prevailing wages and salary scales for another affected community — Devens, or more specifically the Devens Regional Enterprise Zone.
“I think that’s a critical piece of information,” said Normand. Devens Education Advisory Committee Chairman Maureen Babcock was helping the committee gather that data, but Colwell said “she really ran into a brick wall on that.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Normand, who was a decadelong employee of MassDevelopment through 2008. “MassDevelopment in the past has tried to get their arms around salary lines because that’s the primary mission of MassDevelopment on Devens is job creation. To measure success, they’ve always tried to get this information, but companies are reluctant to give up their payroll for competitive reasons.”
Normand said the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce may be able to assist in the information gathering. “That’s one piece of information we need.”
But equally important in the calculations are “what types of businesses are MassDevelopment trying to attract?” Normand suggested the agency could be seeking out “innovation or technology with higher wages, as opposed to the earlier businesses that moved to Devens that were warehouse and distribution or sort of lower level jobs.”
“If Vicksburg Square is part of the (Devens) Reuse Plan and part of the ‘Devens Advantage,’ as they call it, what’s being produced here ought to be something they market,” said Normand. “So I see that as a problem. We need to get that information. I’m open to suggestions.”
“Wouldn’t Bristol-Myers Squibb would want to divulge that information?” asked Harvard School Committee member Patricia Wenger. “In order to get housing for their employees?”
“I suppose if it were characterized that we don’t want specific salaries on what they pay an entry-level chemist, but rather what is the starting salary in broad terms,” offered Normand.
“I suspect everyone’s different,” said Colwell. “If MassDevelopment can’t get it, what’s to say we would?”
“Depends on what question they’re asking,” said Normand.
DEAT member Orville Dodson asked MassDevelopment what it is hoping to attract.
“That’s really dictated by what land is available out there,” said Normand. “Much of it is innovation and technology. What’s happening with the industrial park is it’s changing.”
When the Fort Devens base closed in 1994, the manufacturing was higher but it has since ebbed as it has elsewhere. “So a lot of companies that were there, like Gillette, have consolidated their operations and sent jobs overseas,” said Normand. “And the new users going in are more technology oriented.” Case in point, MagneMotion is using magnets to push the boundaries of levitation into commercial usage.
“What kind of company is going to go into (the vacant) Evergreen Solar (plant)? It has such a robust infrastructure in terms of power and other utilities, you’d suspect it’s not going to be a warehouse that’s going in there,” said Normand.
Another data point is whether the permanent military workforce that remains on Devens would qualify. “My sense is there’s not a lot of lower-level enlisted there, but more middle- and higher-level military staff,” said Normand.
Between the Chamber of Commerce and MassDevelopment, Normand said the task at hand remains answering the question “what kinds of businesses are likely to come to Devens?”
Another data point is the estimated 145 school-aged children expected to be housed at Vicksburg Square. Trinity continues to state that there’d be .86 school-aged students for each of the 168 family units — that’s not including the 78 set-aside senior housing units.
Wenger said interim Harvard School Superintendent Joseph Connelly will plot a three to five year scenario on projected student population figures. Normand said that would be helpful data. “At a minimum that has to be interpreted cautiously at this point as the (housing) market is changing.”
But Wenger wondered, too, about the “fiscal responsibility” of a Vicksburg Square residential project since Trinity projects the buildings would generate a combined $208,000 per year, but would cost in excess of $1 million a year to provide municipal services to the Vicksburg campus. “Why would MassDevelopment and the three towns OK that?” asked Wenger rhetorically. “There’s not enough money coming in to maintain that.”
“It’s definitely a consideration,” said Normand. “Every community is faced with residential development impacting the schools and Harvard’s not unique. Real estate taxes are typically inadequate.”
“They’re always looking at the highest and best use,” said Normand. “The same with Vicksburg Square. Its benefit is derived from income.”
But the population influx cannot be minimized, either, Normand said. One-bedroom units would have a minimum occupancy of 1.5 tenants, two tenants for two bedrooms, and three tenants for three-bedroom units. “You can increase the population by 500 people,” said Normand. “If you add that to the Harvard population existing, that’s almost a 10 percent increase…That’s got to have some impact on municipal services.”
Normand said DEAT is therefore trying to determine the “hidden costs” of Vicksburg Square, namely the added costs to the town in veterans or Council-on-Aging costs. In any event, “categorically, communities can’t say no to residential development because it’s not raising enough money.”
“We’re not saying that,” said Wenger.
“But it is a real loser,” said Colwell.
“That’s going to put a crunch on the budget,” said Wenger.
“What we’re trying to get our arms around is ‘what is different about a rental project as opposed to a home- ownership project?’ What’s different about a low-income project?”
“What we’re looking for is empirical stuff that we can draw conclusions from; no one is singling out low income families,” said Normand.
The DEAT will meet again Aug. 17 to review a series of answers provided by Trinity from a series of DEAT questions last month.