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Mobile home status at issue

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / June 17, 2012
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Aiming to boost its low-cost housing numbers, Danvers is seeking special legislation to count most of its mobile homes as affordable units.

The legislative effort, authorized by a Town Meeting vote last month, is intended to address a complaint that town officials have long voiced about the state’s affordable housing law, Chapter 40B.

The law allows developers whose projects include affordable units to skirt local zoning in communities where housing stock is less than 10 percent affordable. What irks Danvers officials is that mobile homes do not normally meet the law’s definition of affordable units and as a result cannot be counted as affordable.

Danvers is not the only community to raise the objection.

Salisbury last summer filed a home rule petition similar to that of Danvers, but it has been stalled in the Legislature. Spurred by the Danvers action, meanwhile, Peabody city councilors are considering the idea of Peabody filing a similar home rule petition.

Danvers officials say that mobile homes that otherwise meet affordability standards for price and income levels cannot be certified as affordable if there is no deed restriction requiring the property to remain affordable. They say that hurdle is difficult to clear because it requires the consent of the mobile home owner.

“The argument is that these have been in place for more than 20 years – they haven’t moved. They certainly are affordable. There is such a large number of them that we feel we can make the case that they should be counted,” said Selectman Daniel C. Bennett, who with Selectman Gardner S. Trask III is spearheading the legislative effort in Danvers.

The special act would let Danvers count all mobile homes at least 20 years old that meet the other affordability standards even if they have no deed restriction, according to Trask. He estimated the town has 200 mobile homes, and that 80 percent are at least 20 years old.

Trask said a key motivation for the legislation is to help the town reach and stay above the required 10 percent affordable housing level, and in so doing gain the power to deny unwanted Chapter 40B projects.

Danvers, whose state-certified housing affordability rate is now 9.2 percent, is 94 units shy of the 10 percent mark, according to state figures.

“It maintains our ability to control zoning,” Trask said of reaching the 10 percent threshold. Chapter “40B strips the town of any rights regarding zoning, and we want to maintain those rights.”

But the town is also waging the effort “to make sure people know Danvers is a place where there is affordable housing and that we support that social need,” said Trask, who chairs the Danvers Affordable Housing Committee and the newly formed Danvers Affordable Housing Trust.

Mary-Lead Assad, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said in a prepared statement: “Although mobile homes are not explicitly excluded from the subsidized housing inventory, mobile homes do not generally meet other eligibility requirements for inclusion.”

Assad said her agency “has continuously said we are willing to discuss the inclusion of mobile homes [in affordable housing inventories] if such homes meet standards such as income eligibility, housing price, fair housing marketing considerations, and enforceable affordability restrictions.”

Based on the experience of Salisbury, the Danvers proposal could face an uphill climb on Beacon Hill. The Joint Committee on Housing sent the bill to a study committee, effectively ruling out further action on it this session, according to Adam Martignetti, chief of staff to state Representative Michael A. Costello, a Newburyport Democrat.

“Any time you are looking at some modification of 40B, there are probably strong opinions on both sides,” Martignetti said. “I think maybe this bill is caught up in some of that.”

State Representative Theodore C. Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat, noted that when the state issued new Chapter 40B rules in 2008 that eased the task for municipalities to reach their 10 percent mark, those changes did not include allowing mobile homes to be more readily counted.

He said in light of that and the voters’ rejection of a 2010 state referendum to abolish Chapter 40B, it is not likely lawmakers will be inclined to support any changes to the law, even those made for one community.

With the loss of federal funding for housing, “I think many legislators, especially urban ones, feel if we weaken 40B too much, we are walking away from the problem completely,” he said.

Speliotis said, however, that Danvers’ initiative petition “sends a strong message that 40B is still tough for communities, that it’s tough to maintain that 10 percent.”

Bennett said he would like to see lawmakers from communities with mobile homes to work together for legislation that would effect on a statewide level the change Danvers and Salisbury have sought for their own communities.

Karen Sawyer, Peabody’s director of community development and planning, said that the city has been able to include in its affordable housing inventory 64 of its overall 741 mobile homes. She said it accomplished that by requiring the owners of those homes to place affordable housing restrictions on their deeds as a condition of receiving federal funds from the city to renovate their properties.

But Peabody City Councilor Barry Osborne said it is generally difficult to secure deed restrictions, so that by eliminating that requirement, the city would be able to count many more mobile homes affordable.

Peabody had been above the 10 percent affordable housing mark until it fell back to 9.1 percent on the 2010 US Census.

“You don’t want to fall below [10 percent] because you open yourself up to unfriendly 40B development,” Osborne said. “If we had much more control of [40B] permits, cities and towns would be more likely to work with developers.”

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