WTF is the deal with this Affordable Housing thing?
by Josh Turiel
Every city in the state deals with the issue. As has been mentioned in these pages before, I’m an Actual Real-Life Elected Official On The North Shore (I’m a Ward Councillor down the line in Salem). We deal with this issue, and the misconceptions (and real-life issues) that affordable housing mandates bring to all of our communities. I’m not gonna BS anyone. There’s structural problems in our real estate markets, and many of our programs. But there’s also a lot of bias, predjudice, and just plain idiots out there when it comes to this stuff. I know that idiots don’t read the Clam, so I’m writing this for the rest of you. And making fun of the idiots.
First of all, basically every community in Massachusetts is mandated to make sure that at least 10% of their housing stock is maintained as “affordable housing”. What is affordable housing? At it’s simplest (the whole thing is pretty complicated), it’s homes that can be rented by people at income levels generally 80% of the median income in the area or lower (to a point). This is a gross oversimplification. Don’t post hundreds of comments with the precise numbers – it’s not about the exact numbers.
If your income qualifies you, you can be eligible to rent properties within that affordable inventory. Depending on actual income, you may be eligible for other programs to help you make those rent payments. The best known program is the federal Section 8 program – which provides subsidy vouchers to low-income tenants. Basically, the government helps pay rent directly to the landlord.
In our state, we have another program called Chapter 40B. It simply says that if your community has less than the 10% affordable housing stuck mandated, than a developer can take 20% of the units in a development, designate them as affordable (with rents according), and bypass most local zoning bylaws.
A lot of developers have used this to build complexes far larger than would otherwise be permitted in communities.
So the challenge that most cities have is to try and keep their affordable housing levels as close to the magic 10% as possible, without going under and giving developers a chance to get the nose of the camel in the tent. Salem’s at nearly 14%. So there’s no 40B bypass here. Manchester By-The-Twee? Under 5%. Somebody identifies and buys a plot of land there, they can ram through whatever they want under 40B.
Another thing about cities like ours – they’ve become pretty hip places to live for a lot of people. Young families, refugees from the cities, empty-nest couples – as much as our real estate prices have exploded, it’s worse in Metro Boston. Way worse. I have a friend with a good job who is nearly 40 (yes, I know it’s an anecdote). He’s interested in moving closer to the city – lives in an outer suburb right now up in the Merrimack Valley. Salem is about as far as he might be able to find a place – and most are out of his price range. If he moves into, say, Somerville? He’s going to have to get a roommate. A middle-aged man with a perfectly good job. Why? Because the rental housing market has become so distorted due to exploding real estate values.
In other words, when you’re on Facebook and your racist friend is ranting about all the (fill in your minority group of choice here) who are getting free homes from the government, or living in your neighborhood, you can mostly ignore them. There’s a lot of people. I mean a LOT of people, who work for a living, have real jobs, and simply can’t afford to live in their communities. We need these people almost as much as the Wicked Tuna guys NEED THIS FISH. They make our cities run. They work in the pharmacies, the supermarkets, the restaurants. A lot of them have jobs that are “up the ladder” from traditional service jobs, and they can’t make things on their own, either. A lot of the people reading this are a couple of missed paychecks away from not being able to afford their rent.
Are there freeloaders? I’m sure there’s people out there playing the system. We’ve got them, you’ve got them. You don’t have rules without people figuring out ways to bend them. But that’s not the mainstream. It never has been.
Besides all this, we’ve got hybrid non-profit/for profit entities that try and serve this market. In our area, we have groups like the North Shore CDC. They do a lot of work in Salem – I know most of the management well from their work here. They build and rehabilitate housing in downtown cores and generally improve the areas where they provide affordable housing. How? They police their units better than most hands-off private landlords would. They maintain them centrally, and in doing so, they make money. Which they then use to expand their portfolio and provide more services. Also, a lot of communities that implement the CPA (Community Preservation Act) use the CDC and similar agencies to help implement the affordable housing percentage mandate in the law.
It’s like capitalism and socialism, all tied up neatly with a lovely bow.
So in Gloucester, it starts to get a little weird. Right now you’ve got an affordable housing project that the North Shore CDC is working with your Action Inc. to design and build. It’s on Main Street (https://goodmorninggloucester.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/affordable-housing-downtown-site-plans/). Now I don’t know Main Street like a native – I hang out in Gloucester some, the site admins are friends of mine and we’re all like hanging out on the Interwebs being funny together. I’ve been through a few projects here in Salem in my four years of doing government. Bear with me here..
THE DESIGNS ON THE BOARDS YOU SEE IN THE LINKED ARTICLE ARE NOT THE ACTUAL PROJECT!!!
There, I feel better having said that.
I read the article, and virtually every one of the commenters on it should have their keyboards taken away, and their iPads replaced with Etch-a-Sketches. You lose your Internet license.
What you are looking at in those photos are basic design concepts that are intended to show what we refer to as “massing”. It’s the basic profile of what the building shape would be, how the access would work, and where things are located. The floor layouts are approximate as well. Once the basic shape of the building is established, then a full design with materials and real layouts would be drafted and the whole design review process starts. Given that I think Gloucester may not be at the 40B number, you would be stuck with whatever they want to do, basically. It’s good regardless that there is a public process you’re going through with it.
What it is NOT, is a final design. There is NO BUILDING BEING BUILT WITH BLANK GREEN WALLS GOING UP FOUR STORIES. Real buildings have things like metal, brick, and glass. Massing studies do not have these things.
So the bottom line message to my friends on the other side of the bridge is this: Trust the public process. Feel free to weigh in on the design, when there is one. I’m generally happy with the work that the North Shore CDC has done here in Salem – though they have opponents and I’m not always on their side here. That’s the political process at work, and it usually results in better outcomes across the board.
Having people living in your downtown is good for the downtown, and the businesses there. It’s helped us a lot, it’s good for you too. And from an affordability standpoint, it’s also good to see people be able to live in the communities they love and work in – even if they don’t get paid the big bucks.