Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Chapter 40B Housing

This column originally appeared in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle on Saturday, January 26th, 2008.

For years now Norton town officials have been at the forefront of the fight to change Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law.

They tried going to the legislature, rallying other communities, and even pressed their case in court. In the end, they achieved relief from the tough law the old-fashioned way:

They earned it.

For those unfamiliar, Chapter 40B exempts builders from local planning and zoning laws if they build housing with at least 25-percent classified as affordable. The rest can be sold or rented at market prices. But these rules only apply in communities where less than 10-percent of all housing is affordable.

Barring a late appeal, Norton will achieve the magical 10-percent threshold when the 176-unit Turtle Crossing apartment development is built.

That means developers will no longer be able to come to Norton and put too many homes on too little land to make too much money while helping not enough people. That is, until the building of new homes puts the town back under 10-percent.

It would be nice to think Norton achieved this goal out of a real desire to help its citizens live affordably. But the truth is Norton has greatly increased its level of affordable housing because of Chapter 40B, not despite it.

In other words, the bottom line is – this law works.

The very phrase “affordable housing” causes tremors throughout most local communities. It is often confused with “low-income housing”, when in fact they are two very different things.

Low-income housing is government subsidized housing intended for the poorer people in our society. Far too often it creates “projects” where people who either cannot get jobs or refuse to do so are housed.

There are sociological and racial overtones to low-income housing, both in real life and in the minds of much of the citizenry. Fair or unfair, true or false, the perceptions are at least as strong as the realities.

But affordable housing merely is an attempt to allow some relief for the mythical middle class. In many local towns, our children move out because they cannot afford to live in the communities where they grew up.

Affordable housing means they can purchase or rent at prices below the existing market. This is not intended as a hand-out, but rather a start. It is meant to create opportunities, not projects.

But developers cannot and should not be asked to create these opportunities out of the goodness of their hearts. While often pictured as greedy and soulless businesspeople – sometimes accurately – the fact is they have families to support too. They are in business to make money.

Communities often increase the minimum lot size to build a home within their borders to as much as two acres. Then when the developer builds a million dollar home to offset the increased land cost, they bemoan the effect it has on the tax rate and property values.

You can’t have it both ways.

Chapter 40B is despised by most area towns because it takes away their control. There are most definitely parts of the law that are unfair and distasteful.

But towns that have worked hard and made sure they have at least 10-percent affordable housing are exempt. Chapter 40B is a law they can avoid simply by doing what the law was intended to do – create affordable housing.

Almost everyone is in favor of affordable housing. But most don’t want to see it in their neighborhood. They always seem to think there is a “better place” for it.

Norton is no different. Many of the 40B developments in town have faced fierce opposition, almost all of it from the neighborhood where it was planned. Selectmen, zoning and planning board members and other officials have faced tremendous pressure and criticism.

But Norton didn’t just complain – it complied. The town worked with developers in an example of the public/private partnerships Chapter 40B was meant to create.

What this achieved is a better town, with more affordable housing, that has now regained control over development.

Not a bad result for a law no one seems to like.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and a life-long resident of Norton. He can be reached at

1 comment:

M said...

thank you for the excellent article. there are a lot of misconceptions about 40b being perpetrated.