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Natick selectmen expand pool of those eligible to get a local preference for affordable housing in town

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  November 14, 2012 02:41 PM

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Natick selectmen Tuesday night voted to expand the number of people who are eligible for a local preference when applying for affordable housing in the town.

Now, anyone who lives in Natick, works in Natick, has children in Natick schools, or has an immediate family member living in Natick can apply for a local preference unit.

Previously an applicant had to either live in Natick, be related to a Natick resident, or work for the town.

The preference gives an advantage to someone applying for the housing.

Under the town's current affordable housing law, 70 percent of all affordable housing units can be granted with preference given to people who meet the new criteria. The other 30 percent of units are open to anyone living and working anywhere.

"This will affect the housing pool a lot," said Joe Merkel, Natick housing planner. "There’s a lot of big employers in Natick bringing in a lot of commuters, and now any one of those employees could be eligible for local preference and affordable housing."

Merkel said that recent lotteries for affordable housing have shown that the town has needed to expand to pool of people who can take advantage of local preferences.

The change came at the suggestion of a housing consultant who presented a report
to selectmen last night that said the town needs to address the growing need for affordable housing units for families. The housing production plan study said the town should focus on getting small houses built which will be available to young families.

The finding by an independent consulting firm, noted that the town has met and exceeded the 10 percent threshold for affordable housing units in communities as defined by the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law. The law allows developers to avoid certain local zoning requirements in communities with less than 10 percent.

“Now, the Town of Natick can plan for the kind of affordable housing it wants and can be more selective bringing that into the community, rather than the state or a developer coming in and having more influence,” said Lynne Sweet of LDS Consulting Group, who compiled the report.

However, the town has focused on affordable units for a specific target group. According to the report, 75 percent of the 429 affordable rental units overseen by the Natick Housing Authority are designated for the elderly and disabled, with only 20 percent dedicated to families and five percent for group homes.

While an elderly or disabled person might wait six months to a year for an affordable Natick unit, families must wait five years to 15 years for an appropriate home.

“Our work isn’t really done here,” Sweet said, also noting that housing is sparse for the extremely poor. “We found tremendous need for any kind of rental housing for families under 50 percent [of the area's average median income].”

Sweet recommended that the town consider building small houses, which would have about three bedrooms or so, for purchase instead of rent as part of an affordable "cottage community." This would both address the growing need for family-oriented affordable homes and also help acclimate first-time house buyers to the home ownership market, she said.

"These would be 1,800-square foot homes, ideal for seniors downsizing or for families entering the marketplace," Sweet said.

She said that a similar project was proposed in Hingham, where brand new three-bedroom homes with garages were being sold for about $500,000 for those who qualify.

However, Sweet said building such homes would present challenges. While the gap in monthly rent between an affordable and market value three-bedroom rental apartment is about $400 - $1,800 compared to $1,400 - the affordability gap between purchasing a home in Natick's market is much larger. Buyers pay about $460,000 on average for a market-rate new home, compared to the $250,000 that a lower-income family could afford.

She said that these families also have a harder time maintaining a house, since the costs can skyrocket easily.

"It's not just the cost to put it up," Sweet said. "We need to identify what will make it sustainable moving forward."

Sweet also said that Natick faces obstacles in developing more affordable housing in general. She described the town as a "mature community" with most of its land already developed, since the town has proved desirable for its proximity to Boston.

"Finding land, and at a good price, is difficult in this community," she said.

Sweet also said that Natick's relatively constrained parking, especially downtown, could hinder the possibility of such larger developments becoming attracted to the area.

However, she said that the town could consider a parking policy downtown where commuters could park there during the day, and residents could park there overnight.

"That’s becoming more popular and acceptable in communities," she said.

Overall, Sweet recommended that the town continue adding about three affordable units to its housing stock per year, but noted that this number was fairly low.

"There's a lot more that needs to be created than three per year, but if you're looking at small ownership projects in between, that’s reasonable," she said.

Natick chose to conduct the study voluntarily, using state funding to help complete it, Sweet said.

Local officials can now discuss Sweet's findings and use them as a guideline to help streamline any development proposal processes to come, she said.

"Now, when people come in front of you with a development, you will be more equipped to review it and have tools at your disposable for Natick to continue to be proactive on affordable housing," she said.

Selectmen said that the findings would be prove invaluable to the town, as housing is one of the key ingredients for a flourishing community.

"All communities have a stake to attract new businesses to the community, but they're only going to come here if there's a workforce that can afford to be nearby," said Joshua Ostroff, a Natick selectman.

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