Housing Authority members exit the building

All four members of the Carlisle Housing Authority submitted their resignations on Monday, September 10, effective immediately. 

Members of the group released a joint letter noting dissatisfaction with earlier actions by the Board of Selectmen and the elimination of the housing coordinator position. The Housing Authority, whose role is to support the creation of affordable housing, sent the letter to the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), with copies to local officials, as well as several media outlets including the Mosquito and the Boston Globe. 

Board of Selectmen Chair Nathan Brown said that he did not know what had precipitated the resignations at this time. A mediated discussion between the Housing Authority and the Selectmen had been proposed several months ago, but had not yet been held. Brown said that there had been no meetings between the two groups since spring Town Meeting.

With no remaining members, Brown said that the Housing Authority would have difficulty fulfilling its statutory responsibilities and he planned to bring the topic up at the Selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, September 11. He said that he would offer to consult with Town Counsel to figure out a path forward and bring a proposal back to the following Selectmen’s meeting on September 25. 

Resigning Housing Authority members included Mark Levitan (chair), Steve Pearlman, Carolyn Ing and Megan Bearse. The first three have each served many years, while Bearse was elected this spring.

Reasons: funding, lack of cooperation, goals

Pearlman said, “I quit because every effort we made to further affordable housing in Carlisle was either stymied by the Selectmen/Housing Trust…or was put on the back burner…or not dealt with in good faith.”

Levitan said “I think first of all our statements in the letter speak for themselves.” See text of the letter, at lower right. One problem noted was a disagreement over funding for support staff. When Elizabeth Barnett retired from the 24-hour per week housing coordinator position at the end of 2017 the Selectmen chose not to hire a replacement. Later, funding for the position was removed from the town budget. The Housing Authority offered an amendment at Town Meeting to restore funding for a coordinator, but the amendment failed to pass.

The letter also stated that the Selectmen and Housing Trust (a majority of whom are Selectmen) refused to help fund a study of the market demand for local mixed-income rental housing. The letter further stated that Selectmen did not fulfill an agreement to draft new Local Initiative Program (LIP) regulations to help private 40B builders gain town endorsement. 

The first two issues had existed for several months. More recently, the Board of Selectmen in August released their goals for the coming year. Levitan expressed frustration that the Selectmen’s goals did not include any proactive work to create affordable housing, listing only a goal to improve the relationship with the Housing Authority (see www.carlislema.gov/DocumentCenter/View/1418/BOS-Goals-2018-2019). 

Push for rental housing

Pearlman said that even though some local officials are against affordable rental housing, rental projects should be considered because they are more practical to build. First, in a mixed-income rental project a majority of the units can be “market rate” and the state will still count every unit toward the town’s affordable housing target. The higher rents charged in the market rate apartments can reduce the long-term cost of the project. In addition, he said that the state favors rental projects. “In the last four years, there hasn’t been a single new affordable housing project that DHCD has funded that isn’t a rental project.” 

The Benfield senior housing on South Street is an example of a town-sponsored rental project. The town donated land (through a ground lease for a token amount), as well as funds toward infrastructure, and entered into an agreement with the Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH) to develop and manage the apartments. Units have differing income restrictions, ranging from 30% to 100% of Area Median Income, yet all count toward the town’s inventory of affordable housing stock.  

“Mixed income rental housing is the only thing that’s going to succeed in Carlisle and the majority of the Board of Selectmen are adamantly against it,” Pearlman said. “Whether the people of Carlisle are against it I don’t know, but the Selectmen think they are. Until the Selectmen get over that prejudice, no affordable housing will be built in Carlisle. That’s the main reason that I resigned.”

Communication problems

Prior to and during spring Town Meeting, the issues between the Housing Authority and Housing Trust/Selectmen were aired in public meetings and through Mosquito articles, letters and invited essays. Both groups had showed interest in holding a mediated or facilitated joint meeting to help resolve their differences. (See also “Housing Trust, Authority explain divergent points of view,” April 6.) 

However, since Town Meeting, there has been very little communication between them. Levitan said that he had communicated with Selectwoman Kate Reid in June and July about the mediated session, which the Authority members had hoped would be held by June 30, “but it didn’t happen.” He said, “We’ve had no communication with any other Selectmen.” 

Pearlman speculated that the mediation was never scheduled by the Selectmen because housing is “so low on their priority list.”

Asked if Housing Authority members had considered warning the town before resigning en mass, Levitan replied, “It sounds like a negative that we didn’t warn them. I’m going to flip it around. They’ve shown us clearly…your work isn’t wanted.”

Pearlman noted that the decision for the group to resign had been discussed at earlier Housing Authority meetings, though it was not widely known because no reporter was present at those meetings. He said that he had first suggested the idea in May after Town Meeting. “The other members felt no, it’s not completely hopeless. They wanted to have the mediated meeting,” he explained. “Then last week we met and people said since there’s been no mediation, let’s go ahead and resign.”

Creating controversy the goal

Asked why the letter about the resignations was sent to newspapers in Boston and several neighboring towns, Pearlman said, “We want to make this as controversial as we possibly can.”  

Ramifications?

Pearlman wants to promote a deeper discussion of the town’s priorities for affordable housing, rather than to directly harm the town. He said, “I was extremely disappointed with Town Meeting. We informed a lot of people and I looked around the room and I was shocked at how few people who I knew might support us turned out. My feeling is that people are not focused on this.” He said that he does not think the controversy will cause any lasting harm. 

What about the Housing Authority’s responsibilities such as its ground leases when there are no members, Pearlman stated, “We’re not going to leave the town in the lurch.” Levitan agreed, “It’s not going to be a problem.” Noting that the leases “are pretty static at this point,” he said that Town Counsel had already been asked by the Selectmen to oversee the leases when the housing coordinator retired.

Levitan said that before the group resigned, he had asked counsel at DHCD, “What happens if we don’t have a quorum?” He said he was told that there would not be any legal difficulties.

Going forward, Levitan explained that the Selectmen may appoint new members to the Housing Authority until the next local election. “The Selectmen are now responsible and they can definitely take action, either as members of the Selectmen or the Housing Trust,” he said. “I hope there isn’t any risk.”

Moving on

Bearse was new to the Housing Authority, but Levitan, Pearlman and Ing had served for many years and helped to create both the Benfield senior housing and the group housing for the intellectually disabled on the Mosely Goff Land. What are their thoughts about their resignations? “This is not the outcome we’d have ever hoped for,” Levitan said. While disappointed, he said that he is no less committed to the ideals of affordable housing. “We can contribute in other ways,” he said.

Ing focused on the positive, “I am happy to have contributed to adding a little more diversity to Carlisle’s housing stock as well as to its population during my years on the Housing Authority and Housing Trust.” 

(See related article, page 9.) ∆