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By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, DEC. 19, 2017.....While the state's largest city has nearly doubled the statutory goal for affordable housing stock, officials from smaller communities argued Tuesday that their hometowns' rural character makes it harder to accommodate new housing developments.

The lack of a public sewer makes growth challenging in Norfolk, the town's affordable housing director said. The only lots left in Winchester are undesirable for building, according to a member of the town's planning board. Dover lacks the public water supplies and road infrastructure needed to handle the type of growth promoted by a 1969 state law, a health official told lawmakers.

Supporters and critics of the Chapter 40B law squared off before the Housing Committee on Tuesday, where affordable housing advocates said laggard housing production has made mortgage and rent payments skyrocket in the state.

The law allows developers in certain communities to skirt local zoning rules if at least 20 to 25 percent of the units include long-term affordability restrictions, according to Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), which credited the law with creating more than 71,000 homes, of which 36,000 are income-restricted. The more flexible rules under 40B apply to cities and towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is deemed affordable. Local officials often complain that the law impedes control over local development.

In Boston, whose population numbers more than 670,000 people, about 19 percent of the housing stock is deemed affordable, according to City Hall.

In Norfolk, a town of about 11,000 about 11 miles southwest of Boston, it is "much more difficult" to reach that 10 percent threshold, Susan Jacobson, the affordable housing director, told the committee on Tuesday. She told the News Service it is harder to accommodate housing growth because the town has no public sewer system.

Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat and co-chairman of the Housing Committee, said members heard concerns about the lack of water supplies outside of Boston "loud and clear," suggesting that environmental officials should work on solutions to that problem.

Gov. Charlie Baker last April filed a $1.3 billion five-year bill (H 3925) to finance housing production and renovation around the state. Last week the governor proposed legislation to make it easier for municipalities to adopt pro-growth policies.

The housing bond bill will likely hit the House floor in January and the Housing Committee will likely hold a hearing on the governor's zoning bill around the same time, said Honan, who said, "We as a committee are excited that he has put forth that proposal."

Norfolk Rep. Shawn Dooley asked the Housing Committee to allow workforce housing with higher income thresholds to count toward the 10 percent affordable housing goal. Dooley said firefighters and police officers can't afford to live in towns he represents but they make too much money to qualify for the subsidized housing created by 40B.

Most affordable housing created by 40B is restricted to households at or below area median income – meaning a four-member 40B household in the Boston area could make up to about $78,150 while a four-member family around Springfield could make no more than about $64,000 to qualify, according to MassHousing.

Under Dooley's bill (H 3010), families could qualify for subsidized 40B housing if they make up to 150 percent of median income.

Milford Rep. Brian Murray asked his colleagues to expand the definition of low or moderate income housing under 40B to include single-family homes and condos valued at $200,000 or less. Home prices vary around the state. The median price in October was $360,000 for a single-family home in Massachusetts, according to the Warren Group. Murray said his bill would yield a more "accurate count" of the affordable housing in a city or town.

There is a "lot of anger" towards 40B because local officials are often unaware of other legal tools at their disposal to manage development, such as designating an area in town for growth, Rachel Heller, the CEO of CHAPA told the committee.

The 1969 law was "largely the result of a civil rights movement" to make cities and towns more open to new residents, said Ben Fierro, a lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts. He said local officials in some towns continue to make it difficult to build homes and "children seem to be toxic" in some communities where officials are worried about the cost of schooling. Using a term that former Sen. David Magnani employed years ago, Fierro said "vasectomy zoning" – requiring large lots and enacting restrictions on septic systems – is used to make towns unwelcoming to young families.

"We do not use exclusionary zoning," said Gerald Clarke, chairman of the Dover Board of Health. Dover roads are single-lane and residents are on private wells, which can be adulterated by nearby developments, Clarke told the committee.

While Winchester lacks the density of closer-in suburbs, Maureen Meister, who is on the town's Planning Board, said the town is "built out" and 40B developments are proposed for "land that is undeveloped for a good reason."


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