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Massachusetts needs housing — so vote no on Question 2

October 22, 2010

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IT’S BAD enough when young people who grew up in Massachusetts drift away because of high housing prices, or when police officers and teachers must settle miles from where they work because of the lack of moderately-priced homes. Along comes a ballot initiative to make matters worse by trying to repeal the state’s affordable housing law — Chapter 40B. This misguided repeal attempt — Question 2 on Tuesday’s ballot — deserves a resounding “no.’’

Question 2 is a sleeper at a time when more voters are focused on other races and higher-profile ballot questions. But more than 1,000 business, religious, civic, and environmental organizations have joined to fight the proposed repeal of the affordable housing law. They point to 58,000 homes in multi-family developments that wouldn’t exist or be under construction if not for the 40B law. And they point to another 12,000 permitted units that will be wiped off the board if the repeal effort succeeds.

Some voters will hear the term affordable housing and automatically think of crime-ridden housing projects. But 40B developments are nothing of the kind. They are essentially mixed-income communities where developers set aside a portion of the units — at least 20 percent — for people who meet the state’s income eligibility guidelines. The adjusted rents or sales price gives modest earners a chance to buy into attractive suburban communities where restrictive land use policies — such as large lot zoning — would normally put homes out of reach.

The market-rate component of the developments are also key to the area’s housing supply. From 2002 to 2006, for example, 40B developments comprised more than a third of all newly permitted homes in Greater Boston.

Most of the controversy centers on a provision in the law that allows developers to trump town zoning bylaws if they set aside the required number of affordable units. The law, of course, wouldn’t be necessary in the first place if local zoning codes were more amenable to new housing. Right now, 40B is one of the few ways to get multi-family housing built in eastern Massachusetts, where more than an acre of land is required, on average, for every new housing unit.

The 40B law is designed to force negotiation between developers and local zoning boards, not override local involvement. Communities are exempt from 40B developments once 10 percent of their housing units are affordable to people making 80 percent or less than the state’s median income. The law, in short, isn’t trying to overwhelm communities with affordable housing. It’s simply trying to assure that there will be some.

By allowing developers to build denser developments, the law also limits the need for taxpayer funding for affordable housing. From 2003 to 2006, for example, about 90 percent of 40B units came on line without federal or state grants and loans.

A few 40B developers have tried to elude the profit restrictions placed on the developments. And the law should be more flexible when it comes to counting affordable units, such as trailer parks, toward the 10 percent goal. But any weaknesses can be fixed, or already have been addressed, by the Legislature.

A reasonable supply of moderately-priced housing in Massachusetts is key to retaining and attracting businesses. A strong “no’’ vote on Question 2 is needed to keep the state’s housing starts alive.

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