John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and who teaches economics at Bentley University and UMass Lowell, contributes the following column.
A recall vote and the controversial building project that incited it are generating a lot of heat in Chelmsford this summer. That makes it a good time to shed some light on the organization behind the recall, and the book from which they took their name.
Chelmsford voters keep getting mailings full of fiery language and damning charges against town officials. Lately they have focused on the “9 North Road” project – an office building now nearing completion in the center of town.
The onslaught of mail comes from an organization called Better Not Bigger, formerly known as the Slow Growth Initiative. Better Not Bigger is the title of a book on community development. After reading the book, and reflecting on the conduct of the local organization, the obvious question is: better for whom?
The book offers valid concerns regarding urban sprawl and the inequities of commercial development. Unfortunately, the rhetoric that comes out of the local organization obstructs efforts to promote a more equitable Chelmsford.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, one third of Chelmsford homeowners, and almost half of Chelmsford renters, have housing expenses that are considered unaffordable. One out of every five renters is paying more than half their income on housing. It is almost impossible for the one out of four households in Chelmsford with income under $50,000 to find an affordable place to call home.
Better Not Bigger, the book, observes a dramatic increase in the average home size. The local organization opposes efforts to provide houses and apartments of a more modest size.
The book correctly observes that the profit motive leads developers to prefer high-end homes. The author recommends statewide programs that include incentives or requirements for more affordable housing. Yet the local organization spent a lot of money trying to repeal the Massachusetts state program that does just that (see No On Question 2).
According to the book, the first step in building a sustainable community is to offer a positive vision. Seldom does the local organization offer constructive policies to provide affordable housing. When they do, their suggestions are either impractical, or of modest impact.
One recommendation in the book for building more sustainable communities is “make neighborhoods walkable.” The local organization was critical of initiatives to do exactly that in Chelmsford (disclosure: my wife is a member of the Chelmsford Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee).
The book says, “Concerns about how growth controls affect the availability of low and moderate-income housing are legitimate. But such concerns should not be used merely to thwart and undermine growth controls.” Agreed, we should avoid uncontrolled growth.
The local organization says, “further growth should be aggressively opposed” (their emphasis). They are true to their word as they undermine one of the priorities identified in the book: “to provide a reasonable supply of low to moderate-income housing.”
The book accuses local governments of being part of the “growth machine” by reducing regulations. Academic studies on the high cost of housing in the Commonwealth identify too much regulation, in particular exclusionary zoning, as the prime culprit. Chelmsford zoning allows multi-family housing on only 2 percent of town land.
The book devotes an entire chapter to fiscal impact analysis and the cost of growth. The local organization’s website still cites an expense to revenue ratio for residential development that has been discredited (they still identify the wrong source as well). Further, they ignore the fact that their own supporting material makes it clear that the denser housing developments they vehemently oppose may offer a net fiscal benefit.
The book cautions against labeling and name-calling. The local organization complains about “name-calling officials.” Yet, Better Not Bigger mailings expose us to vitriol such as “incorrigible lemon,” “self-serving hacks,” and “slickster.”
Both the book and the organization like to raise the character issue. They exhort communities to “preserve their small town character.”
The Town of Chelmsford does not have a single character. From Alpha Road to Zeus Drive, from Crooked Spring Road to Summer Street, the town has many characters. There are neighborhoods where development is inappropriate. There are areas where certain forms of development would enhance the character. There are properties in town in dire need of redevelopment.
What we had in Chelmsford was a history of very rapid growth. That history was in the 1950s and 60s. During that 20-year period, almost 6,000 single-family houses were constructed — almost one per day. The character of the town was forever changed. Since then, the rate of development has slowed dramatically, and now it has almost stopped. However, the newer homes are bigger, and many older homes have been enlarged.
Better Not Bigger, the book, correctly observes that the economics all come down to supply and demand. It says, “In most cases, it is rapid growth pressures that drive up prices.” For cities cited in the book like Portland and Houston, and in many sun-belt regions, demand is indeed the problem.
In Greater Lowell, the problem is supply. I am serving on the Chelmsford Affordable Housing Plan Committee. We have found conditions that confirm what a recent Harvard University study referred to as an affordable-housing crisis.
The book warns of “public policies that benefit a select few at the expense of the rest of the community.” That is a valid concern in this area where affordable housing is in short supply. It is an obstacle for many people who want to move here. More affordable housing would benefit many who want to stay in the community.
Both the book and the local organization refer to the United Nations definition of sustainable development: Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The children of Chelmsford are going to find it very hard to live in the town where they grew up.
The author of Better Not Bigger does not endorse the local group, nor did he grant permission to use the name. However, the local organization clearly learned one lesson from the book. The author describes a city recalling a mayor and city councilors. Apparently they were recalled simply because “voters did not like their support of [growth] policies.”
Better Not Bigger is exercising their legal right to force a recall vote. Hopefully, after the vote on August 2nd we can get back to work on constructive efforts to make Chelmsford better for all who want to live here, not just the select who can afford to live here.