Tuesday, June 01, 2010

40b on the Chopping Block?

A friend just asked me to join a 'protect affordable housing' group on Facebook, to which I thought, "affordable housing is in trouble?" I googled to see what it was about... and found out that Chapter 40b is heading for the ballot. This, I'm sorry to inform my old friend, is a good thing -- though I'm not excited that the proposal is to repeal 40b and not reform it.

While I'm generally anathema to ballot questions, this is really one of those times where it makes sense. Why? There are too many powerful interests on Beacon Hill who try to squish any reform of Chapter 40b every year. None of the reform bills ever see the light of day, getting a vote in the full house -- they're all squished in committee.

This, despite the fact that people widely admit there are deep and serious flaws with Chapter 40b. The biggest flaw of which is while 40b allows developers to go into cities and towns and ignore their own zoning regulations, in favor of many units on postage stamps, the law doesn't actually increase the percentage of units in the town with affordable housing, for all intents and purposes, because the developers only have to make 25% of their units be affordable. 40b only kicks in if towns have less than 10% of their housing considered affordable under the guidelines of 40b. Now, if developers had to make 75% of their units be "affordable," making a real dent in a town's number of affordable units, that may be a different story, but that's just not the case. So, not only do developers get to ignore the town's zoning, but they don't even have to get a town any closer to reaching the minimum requirement for affordable housing.

Another huge problem with chapter 40b is 'affordable housing' is essentially defined as affordable for someone who earns 60% of that community's median income. In many towns across Massachusetts, that's still a very, very tall order to be "affordable" to many people wishing to live in those communities. If you're a single mother of two, making $50,000 a year, trying to get your kids into the Brookline school system, you're not going to have much luck with the state's 'affordable housing' bill. Furthermore, in many of those communities, you'll see dozens or hundreds of homes for sale that cost less than the "affordable units," but aren't considered "affordable" by the state for purposes of the 10% threshold.

There's a whole lot of flaws with Chapter 40b in Massachusetts, and powerful special interests have kept it that way. The only question I have is if a full-scale repeal is the answer. I wish this ballot question reformed Chapter 40b, rather than repealed it. We have a severe need of affordable units in Massachusetts, just to keep our best, brightest and most hardworking young adults here in the state. However, it's fair to say that not only is Chapter 40b failing miserably to do that, but it's primary interest at this point is clearly not to create affordable housing, but allow developers to bypass town zoning laws to make even more money.

Perhaps the only way to move ahead on real affordable housing policies that work in this state is for the people to rise up and say no to this broken, special-interest state law. Maybe at that point, we'd be able to create something both more effective at addressing the problem and fairer for communities.

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