This sort of dance happens all the time. It’s slow and expensive, and it’s often self-defeating, because it pits housing advocates and municipalities against each other. But it keeps on happening, because without these sorts of affordable housing clashes, Massachusetts has been unable to add housing in its slow-growth suburbs in any meaningful way.
The state’s affordable housing law, Chapter 40B, recognizes that housing is a public good, and that without a critical mass of dense housing developments, housing costs for renters and homeowners soar. That’s the theory, anyway.
The current standoff in Hingham shows the significant gap between the theory behind Chapter 40B, and how the housing law is actually being implemented. The law targets municipalities with a dearth of affordable housing. In towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock meets certain affordability rules, developers are allowed to circumvent local zoning ordinances. The zoning override is key, since many suburbs use large-lot, single-family zoning to make significant new housing construction illegal.
In Hingham, a developer is using affordable housing as the means for breaking past an ingrained resistance to growth; here, affordable housing is the means to an end, not the end itself. The town, for its part, has taken the narrow view that, if it’s not legally compelled by the state to permit new housing, it won’t.
Two weeks ago, Hingham’s zoning board rejected a permit application from AvalonBay, the large national apartment developer. Avalon wants to build 177 apartments on an 18.5-acre plot sandwiched between the rear side of a shopping center, a small residential neighborhood, and Route 3. Avalon’s property is currently zoned for residential development, but the zoning only allows for the construction of sprawling single-family homes.
In a normal world, Avalon would go to town hall and get a special permit allowing it to build a dense subdivision. Suburban residential development seldom takes place in a normal world, though. Like many towns, Hingham subjects large development permits to a town-meeting vote, making important projects subject to a popular referendum. In these votes, self-interested fear is a powerful motivator. Harvard voters beat back affordable housing in Devens earlier this year in a vote that hinged on imaginary school costs, while the would-be developer of a shuttered Mansfield factory recently pulled his modestly sized project off the town-meeting docket because it appeared ticketed for defeat.
Hingham residents are now echoing those same arguments, fretting about traffic, and about the impact of Avalon’s 177 apartments on schools, police, and fire services. That’s why Avalon filed a Chapter 40B project in Hingham: Town officials likely wouldn’t have approved a special permit for Avalon’s development site, and the developer’s only recourse was to designate a portion of its project as affordable, and make a 40B end-run around town zoning.
Hingham is the type of town Chapter 40B was written for. The town’s production of new housing has lagged far behind demand, and as a result, 45 percent of Hingham residents have to stretch financially to meet inflated housing costs. In eight of the past 15 years, the town hasn’t permitted a single new multi-family residential building. And the town has made it clear that it won’t permit Avalon’s apartment project, unless it’s legally forced to do so.
Hingham disputes the state figures that peg its affordable housing stock at 6 percent, and the issue will likely wind up in court. But even if the town loses, Avalon gets to build its 177 apartments, and dozens of needy families get to access moderately priced housing, it’ll be no great victory for affordable housing advocates. While Chapter 40B is a great tool for cracking individual towns’ anti-development zoning codes, the law is doing little to soften the hardened attitudes on the macro level that birthed the law in the first place.
Battles where the state makes towns build housing at gunpoint do nothing to dispel the wrongheaded notion that housing for working people is something to be feared. Boston and the pro-development cities surrounding it can’t build enough housing to lift Massachusetts out of the affordable housing crunch. Slow-growth suburbs like Hingham have to take a more permissive view toward housing. That won’t happen until towns like Hingham see that growth is nothing to run from, and start embracing it on their own.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.