We can take charge of our housing future
The subject of 40B and affordable housing has been on the minds of many in our community but there hasn’t been an in depth discussion about the subject generally. Most of the communications I have seen relative to 40B have had a negative tone implying that a 40B project will attract the “wrong” kind of people to Stoneham. I’d like to challenge some of that reasoning and give residents an alternative way to think about housing options in general.
The town and the Board of Selectman have unanimously supported creation of a Housing Production Plan. Special Town meeting on October 17, 2016 approved twenty five thousand dollars to fund a housing production plan. The article was unanimously supported by all five members at the 9/26/2016 Board of Selectman meeting and on 9/5/17 the board voted to have a Board of Selectman member appointed to the steering committee of the housing production plan. Anthony Wilson was voted in, again unanimously.
“A Housing Production Plan helps guide future housing development while establishing a community vision and goals that helps the municipality meet local demand for market-rate and affordable housing, while remaining consistent with State-mandated affordable housing requirements. The overall planning effort includes the identification of housing goals and implementation strategies.” - Town Planner Erin Wortman
On January 30, 2018, I attended the Stoneham Housing Production Plan Public Forum. The meeting was well attended by residents, board and committee members, and business owners. The workshop was well thought out and staged for attendee interaction. I was thrilled to see people asking questions and engaging in thoughtful discussion. I met a senior woman who would like to move from her four bedroom home, and downsize, but there is really limited places in Stoneham for her to do that. At this time, Stoneham has limited townhomes or Condos available. I also met a young couple who relocated to a Stoneham condominium, because they were priced out of Medford, and got more square footage for their dollar here in Stoneham. When we talk about affordable housing, there are many aspects to consider. Affordable income based, subsidized (housing), friendly 40B, inclusionary housing, and market rate.
The main focus of the Housing Production Plan meeting was figuring out the goals of Stoneham, as well as the needs this town faces. Affordable housing and the many different aspects of it were presented. Stoneham is fortunate to have these discussions and workshops because for many years they were not addressed. The time is now for some long term planning when it comes to housing. It would be great if Stoneham could maintain its character, while giving us some control over scale and locations.
For me, the topic of senior housing was important to discuss, as both of my parents are on fixed and low incomes. We need to help keep our seniors in our community where they are comfortable and would like to spend their retirement years. Some of the topics that were touched on were fifty five plus developments, locations, and the constraints Stoneham has. We also need to encourage first time homeownership, and get the younger people to come in and raise their families.
Chapter 40B was enacted in 1969 to address the housing crisis and has had a few amendments to the law since. The law was put in place to ensure affordable housing options for residents of the Commonwealth. I want to be clear that when we are discussing 40B and affordable housing, we are not discussing the low-income and subsidized housing (section 8 of the past. Modern 40B housing is often a mix of market rate and affordable units. It can – and routinely is – built to be beautiful, well designed housing that serves the seniors, young people and professionals in our own families who are otherwise having trouble staying in their hometowns or living near their workplaces.
Carefully planned affordable housing can attract young professionals who may start out on their own in the community and later invest in that same community as a homeowner. We hear laments about our seniors being priced out of Stoneham and yet affordable units created under 40B are specifically reserved for seniors. If we were proactive in attracting smart, well planned 40B housing we could ensure affordable living opportunities for Stoneham.
There are thresholds to be met. A community must show that 10% of its housing meets the criteria of affordability. A community tracks its housing inventory to show that it continually meets that 10% standard. Otherwise, as in Stoneham today, the potential for further 40B development – on any site – remains. The state gives serious consideration to communities that are showing progress towards that 10% when approving or denying projects.
If a community like Stoneham had been even slightly proactive in approving some affordable housing options, a too large project like Weiss Farm could have been denied from the start. Lack of progress and lack of a plan to address our housing needs have resulted in tax dollars and private money being used for costly litigation (Langwood Commons 18 years, Weiss farm in year 5) instead of important community programs and services.
We cannot change the past but we can take charge of our future. By having a solid housing production plan with affordable options, an attractive downtown, and quality services we can continue to enable our seniors to age in place and attract young professionals to Stoneham to help us grow. By having a plan, Stoneham residents control the size, location, cost and how developments fit into our community. We have an opportunity to make Stoneham a better place for our seniors, children and workers by assuring the housing they need is available. At the same time, we can provide relief from oversized 40B developments that bypass our zoning and planning processes.
The point is…let’s have conversations about wants and needs so we can control our destiny, and maintain what is most important in town, otherwise we are just being reactive rather than proactive.