Most homeowners in the suburbs are probably already aware of the state zoning law known as “Chapter 40B“.

Here’s a great explanation, from Boston.com, by way of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership:


The state’s 33-year-old affordable housing law allows developers who agree to rent or sell at least 25 percent of their units at below-market values to apply for a comprehensive building permit – and skirt local zoning restrictions – in communities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered affordable.

Under 40B, each of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth is expected to work toward ensuring that at least 10 percent of its housing stock is ”affordable” for those who earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Today, most of the state’s suburban communities, including the vast majority of cities and towns in the North region, fall below the 10 percent quota. Of the 37 Massachusetts municipalities in the region, only six – Chelsea, Lynn, Malden, Revere, Beverly and Salem – meet or exceed the state goal.

Most people hate 40B.

Well, they’ll tell you they like it, in theory, but most of the time, residents will do whatever it takes to keep affordable housing from being built in their towns.

Why?

There are several reasons, some that are logical.  First, residents fear the added burden on their town’s infrastructure.  Water and sewer lines have to be built, plus the added housing may mean more children, putting a strain on local schools.  Plus, there is the density concern.  Most affordable housing proposals are for condos, not single-family homes, and most developments are dense, due to cost concerns.  This means more traffic.  Abutters to the development will have to deal with more people.  This is probably not what they thought they were getting when they moved to the suburbs.

However, there is a reason that Chapter 40B is called the “anti-snob” bill.  To a certain extent, some people believe, suburban residents just don’t want “outsiders” moving into their neighborhoods.  I’m not suggesting racism, of course.  Just that people have a certain idea of what their neighborhood should be like.

Residents also fear for their property values.

It’s not just simple snobbery that drives this fear (although it is a part of it).  It is also the idea that residents’ single-family homes are now next door to a 200-unit condo complex (for example).  Aesthetically, the density doesn’t fit into the neighborhood.

Those of us who live in the city of Boston, or any city, for that matter, find this all amusing, of course.

I mean, I live in South Boston, which is made up of a bunch of three-family homes, apartment buildings, and public housing projects.  “Affordable housing” is around me, everywhere.  (Interestingly, Boston isn’t included in that list above of municipalities having over 10% affordable housing – nor is Lawrence.  I don’t think the list is accurate, then.)

I have a lot of thoughts about all this.

First, to a certain extent, some residents might just be snobs.

Their fear of density and “outsiders” are misguided.  The “affordable housing” that is being built is for those who make up to “80% of the area’s median income”.  The median income is something like $65,000.  That means your new neighbor would be making up to $52,000 a year.  Do people understand this?  Those are “middle-income” people, not “poor” people.  The people moving in down the street would be people you work with, every day.

Second, residents don’t like being told what to do.

  Even though the Chapter 40B law was passed by the state, local towns and cities don’t want the state telling them what they can do in their own towns.  If they want to be snobs, so be it.  Some of the resistance is just because they don’t want to be forced to follow someone else’s rules.

Third, it’s a matter of dollars. 

As I mentioned, residents fear the loss of property values.  This might be a legitimate concern.  A neighborhood made up of single-family homes will look much different, once a large condo complex is built.  Ironically, it’s only because of the high cost of land that developers have to build such dense projects.  Plus, the level of resistance they will face means very few developers will even attempt such a project, and the process will be long and costly.  Those costs must be born by the developer, meaning they need the payoff to be large, as well.  Therefore, any new projects will be dense, by default.

Fourth, forcing a town to accept a big blob of housing in one area is not good urban, or suburban, planning.

I agree that it’s not the best solution to the lack of affordable housing.

Fifth, what criteria is being used to determine if housing is “affordable”?  Is it sales price?  Is it mortgage payment?  I mean, with incredibly low mortgage rates over the past several years, more people than ever have been able to buy a home (a condo, actually).  How is it that people can afford to buy, if housing isn’t “affordable”?

Finally,

growing up, I used to be quite the liberal.  I was all about having jails and public housing in towns such as mine.  I’d say to my father, “If not in Topsfield, where should they build it?”  And his response would be, everytime, “How about downtown Chelsea?!”  Like it was fair that they would have to have all the “undesirable” things.

I’m pretty much a free-marketer these days.  I don’t like the idea of the government (any government) deciding what can be built, and where.

However, this past weekend, I was up in my old hometown, and it was shocking and disturbing to see how large people’s homes are, as well as how huge their yards are (I think neighboring Boxford has a two acre zoning law, or at least it used to).

Isn’t there a solution to this problem that doesn’t require government intervention?  And, isn’t there a way to build affordable housing that doesn’t require gi-normous condo complexes right next to cute and quaint single-family homes?

I don’t know.

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