Monday, July 9, 2007

The Affordable Housing Question

Affordable housing has been in the local news again, raising many questions with few clear answers. There seems to be only a general consensus that there is a lack of affordable housing and that we should try to do something about that. However there is no clear agreement about how to go about this, or what would be considered affordable and for whom. Several approaches have been either pursued or suggested, each with their own potential results both intended and unintended.

The State's answer (40B) was to encourage developers to build affordable housing by granting subsidies and allowing them to ride roughshod over local land use ordinances. Locals often invariably object and with good reason. Inserting out-of-scale, extremely dense buildings into existing neighborhoods is a direct assault on the quality-of-life of a residential area. The local zoning code was developed with preservation of appropriate scale and density in mind. The principle problem with the 40B approach is that it does not allow for the appropriate placement of large scale dense development. Only through vigorous opposition did the neighborhood manage to scale back the St. Aiden's proposal enough to save the historic church structure, the on-site heritage tree, and achieve a density more in line with the neighborhood. Still, this was at a steep cost to town in real dollars and now many are questioning the wisdom of the undertaking in light of the fact that the beneficiaries of the low cost housing will not be middle income working families but rather those who qualify for subsidized housing. The range of housing options therefore has not been broadened, only the quantity of existing options at the top and bottom of the affordability scale augmented. Do we as a community have a moral obligation to provide this housing? Is this the most effective way to spend those funds we do choose to spend towards bridging the affordability gap? While it may achieve some of our goals, I have to think there must be other more creative ways to address this issue, such as subsidizing mortgages for first time buyers, allowing more "infill" within existing housing stock to address the growing need for smaller units for singles and smaller households.

Others (see Leonard Bernstein's letter to the editor in the July 5 Brookline TAB) have suggested that the problem lies with restrictive height and density limits, which he feels should be raised and that by so doing we would see an increase in affordable housing in Brookline. I am afraid this would not at all be the outcome of "upzoning". Mr. Bernstein suggests that the area around Coolidge Corner would be a suitable location for this increased density and that in fact those who have worked to "conserve" his Coolidge Corner neighborhood are to blame for the lack of affordable housing and should be ashamed of ourselves.

The most recent zoning changes proposed in the Coolidge Corner Planning district consisted of changing the zoning for some existing three family dwellings from a multi-family zone to a three-family zone. This was done to remove the financial incentive for tearing down the existing three family building in order to build a bigger more lucrative building. A developer has every incentive to build housing at the top of the market value, to gain the highest rate of return for their investment. The resulting new housing would therefore be more expensive than those units they replaced and the new building would be out of scale and context with its neighbors. It was this incentive for developers to build at the top of the market that the State's Chapter 40B seeks to counteract.

When the three-family zone was coming up for its first vote, Brookline voters became the recipients of a very targeted negative letter campaign that claimed that such a change would cause property taxes to rise. The source of these letters turned out to be a national organization representing small land lords. Perhaps there was an affected property owner who wanted to sell for top dollar.

As Americans we are in fact very conflicted and confused about property rights and development. We often don't think much about it or have a strong opinion until something impacts us personally. Most people do not have any grasp of the processes involved in getting something built and probably assume that there are far more checks and balances, long-term strategizing and thoughtful consideration given to development decisions than there really are. Attempting to achieve a public benefit (in this case affordable housing) within a market driven system requires direct government intervention of some sort. Finding an effective mechanism remains illusive.

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