John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and is an adjunct professor of economics at Bentley University, recently urged readers to vote NO on Question 1 in the upcoming state election. Today he tackles Question 2 concerning the state’s 40B affordable housing law.
According to recent data from the United States Census Bureau, 41 percent of households in Massachusetts are living in unaffordable housing. There are virtually no listings that are affordable for the almost half million households in the state who earn less than $35,000. We are now in year four of a foreclosure crisis, and it is getting worse.
Question 2 on the November ballot, if approved, would eliminate Chapter 40B – the state law that has been creating desperately needed affordable housing. One of the organizers of the initiative petition told The Sun “[voters] will finally be able to decide on whether to replace a broken law with one that actually works.”
Wrong. The ballot question simply eliminates 40B. If 40B is repealed it will be replaced by nothing. Chapter 40B has flaws, has been reformed, and is in need of further reform. Eliminating a program that helps solve a crisis because of manageable side effects without having a new program in place is not a prescription anyone should follow.
Actually, repeal supporters have offered an alternative that towns could pursue on their own. It is call inclusionary zoning, and there is nothing inherently wrong with it.
However, neither the facts nor logic support the claim that inclusionary zoning would produce significant affordable housing.
The same organizer cited Arlington as an example. Like most towns, Arlington has a serious lack of affordable housing. They have an inclusionary zoning bylaw requiring 15 percent of units in new developments be affordable.
At the rate prescribed by this approach, Arlington would have to develop many thousands of new housing units. That is a formula for making towns bigger, not better.
Moreover, obstructionist can use inclusionary zoning as a ploy to simply prevent development. If towns do not offer developers adequate incentives, inclusionary requirements may prevent creation of all types of housing. In the last decade, the Arlington bylaw has resulted in only 11 new affordable units.
Housing is unaffordable for so many because prices are too high. Prices are determined by supply and demand. Fortunately, many people still want to live in Massachusetts, but the problem is an inadequate supply of low to moderate priced housing.
Even under optimal conditions, the supply of affordable housing would be limited because the profit motive drives developers to prefer building large single-family homes.
However, conditions are far from optimal.
Most towns in Massachusetts have very tight exclusionary zoning policies. For example, only 2 percent of Chelmsford is zoned for multi-family housing. Implementing inclusionary bylaws within exclusionary zoning is ineffective.
Massachusetts is one of the most unaffordable states for housing in the country. Studies indicate that exclusionary zoning is the primary reason.
Chapter 40B is not a complete solution, but it has been a valuable tool in responding to the housing crisis. Outside of the big cities, it is responsible for the vast majority of affordable housing, having produced tens of thousands of affordable units.
Even within a city like Lowell, 40B can play an important role. One mill conversion project in Lowell used 40B to produce 73 affordable rental units while combining re-use and historic preservation.
For a while, critics of 40B tried to employ the argument that new housing has a negative fiscal impact. That position has been discredited. In fact, affordable housing developments typically have a positive fiscal benefit.
Opponents raise legitimate concerns with preserving open space. However, the 40B regulations do not prevent redevelopment projects.
Lately, repeal proponents have focused on the issue of “excess profits.” We live in a capitalist economy. When developers build market rate houses, they are free to seek whatever profit they can. Under Chapter 40B, developer profits are capped. In the past, rules were broken. The state has tightened the rules and improved enforcement. There is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Much of the criticism of 40B comes from the perception that towns lose control over their own destiny. Actually, 40B has a planned production program specifically designed to give towns control.
I am a serving on the Chelmsford Affordable Housing Plan Committee. I am solely responsible for this column. The committee has not endorsed it.
The committee’s job is to develop a production plan. We have collected data confirming a large unmet need for affordable housing in Chelmsford. We are working on formulating strategies for addressing that need both with and without 40B.
The Committee would not exist if it were not for Chapter 40B. If Chapter 40B does not exist it is unlikely there will be political will to proactively implement our plan.
If 40B is repealed it may be a pyrrhic victory. Without adequate incentives, the housing crisis will worsen. Legislators may take years to construct a replacement. If the meantime, the courts may impose a judicial remedy. The affordable housing obstructionists may wish they had left well enough alone.
Everyone should focus on how vitally important it is for families to be able to afford a place to live. Vote No on Question 2.