Housing Trust plays central role in town planning

by Cecile Sandwen

The Carlisle Affordable Housing Trust is an active town board. It structured and facilitated the purchase of the Goff Land at Fall 2012 Town Meeting for the purpose of affordable housing serving the developmentally disabled. It is now investigating locations for the housing and a possible future town community center at Goff, as well as determining what affordable housing might be feasible at the abutting town-owned Banta-Davis. Under consideration is how to balance potential future needs for school expansion and recreational fields with the demands for affordable housing. The goal is to present one or more proposals for dividing up the Banta-Davis Land at Annual Town Meeting next spring.

Under state law 40B, a town such as Carlisle with less than 10% of the housing stock affordable can have its zoning enforcement blocked for private developments that are at least 25% affordable. Carlisle hopes to avoid such “unfriendly” developments by adding affordable units over a span of years, both on existing town lands and on purchased properties.

What is the Housing Trust?

The formation of the Housing Trust was approved by Carlisle voters at Town Meeting 2006 to “acquire by gift, purchase, or otherwise real estate and personal property . . . exclusively for the preservation and creation in the Town of Carlisle of affordable housing.” Housing Trusts, as defined under Mass. General Law Chapter 44, section 55c, were designed to make it easier for towns to purchase lands and promote new 40B development. The law defined a board devoted entirely to affordable housing development, with the capability to retain funding, and a requirement that the trustees include Selectmen who could negotiate for the town at a high level. 

At the time the Carlisle Trust was formed, the elected Housing Authority was the only board dedicated to achieving affordable housing goals. Tim Hult, who was an original Housing Trust member, says, “There was a need for an entity to facilitate projects as they come along. This would be a separate office with the ability to do financial transactions, borrow money, and buy things. It would also maintain a reservoir to put money in.” Current Chair Greg Peterson says, “The Housing Trust is much more flexible. It is less focused on owning and managing, but more on financing and getting the private sector and community involved.” He adds, “It provides a mechanism for long-term planning, strategy, and funding.” 

Flexible pursuit of opportunities 

With the formation of the Housing Trust, opportunities for purchasing land and evaluating properties could be more easily pursued. The Trust manages a fund that can be drawn on for negotiated payments and for other investments necessary to move the process along. Previously, there was no mechanism for the town to act quickly if a desired piece of property became available, as Housing Authority funds are limited in usage. 

The Housing Trust Fund can receive transfers from the Community Preservation Act (CPA) Fund and other town sources, as well as payments, donations and government grants. Once money is transferred to the Trust Fund it remains available without further authorization. 

The Trust negotiated the $590,000 price on Goff, ferried the purchase through Town Meeting, and managed the closing. This spring another $145,000 in CPA Funds was transferred to the Housing Trust Fund through a vote at Town Meeting. This was for various consulting, administrative, and other costs associated with preparing Goff and Banta-Davis proposals. Included in the CPA grant was $25,000 to fund the on-going search for and evaluation of private properties. Peterson says more CPA funding may be pursued next spring to thoroughly evaluate the ramifications of tying affordable housing into the school’s wastewater treatment facility. 

Hult defines the difference between the Trust and Housing Authority, “the Housing Trust is the focal point for overall housing strategy and facilitating projects. The Housing Authority is operational, and works with the builder and manager.” He foresees that at some point if Banta and Goff go forward, the operational phase will be turned over to the Housing Authority. “We cooperate with the Housing Authority in lots of ways,” says Peterson. He notes that there are some fuzzy areas of control, and often it’s a matter of which committee has particular expertise. For example, the Housing Authority is managing the bid process at Goff because it has knowledge and experience obtained through Benfield. 

Selectmen participation critical

An important aspect of the Trust is its makeup. The Carlisle board includes the five Selectmen as trustees, with Selectman appointees filling the remaining two slots (currently Peterson and Housing Authority member Carolyn Ing). The Selectmen’s presence means decisions can be made without a long approval process. “It allows us to be fast on our feet,” says Peterson. “We’re able to get in, negotiate a contract and move along pretty quickly.” He notes this was very important in negotiating with the Goff family. “The Selectmen are the people best placed to balance the town’s interests,” adds Peterson. “They get a lot of feedback from all quarters, and that’s tremendously useful.” 

Hult, who serves as both Housing Trust trustee and Selectman, says in a single meeting he may have to change hats. While the Trust is focused on promoting housing at Banta-Davis, “The Selectmen have the responsibility to work with the school on its long-term needs and make sure we have a good plan for recreation. Housing isn’t the only priority in town.” He sees his role on the Trust as asking the questions and gathering the information needed to make a decision as Selectman.

Researching options

“The Housing Trust forms a strategic vision, focuses on what questions need to be answered, and prioritizes spending,” says Peterson. The town has had an Affordable Housing Production Plan since 2005 which lays out methods for achieving 40B goals. Before the Housing Trust existed, however, there was no real mechanism for researching options and setting priorities. 

The Housing Trust provides forums for collecting questions and funds research to answer them. Recently, it has hired consultants to explore rental unit marketability and cost. “Most 40Bs [in other towns] are on interstates or other transportation hubs,” says Peterson. “We’re a little off the grid, so we need to ask the question, Is there demand for affordable housing in Carlisle?” Also, “Some public investment is needed and we have to know what the subsidy cost will be.” In summary, “It is our role to get questions answered to allow intelligent debate to take place.”

The Housing Trust meets roughly once a month and is subject to Open Meeting Laws. At the next Housing Trust meeting on December 12 the board will review input on what activities can coexist at Banta-Davis and where each should be sited. “At Town Meeting we hope to have a real civil debate about whether Banta-Davis should be used to meet our 40B obligation,” says Peterson. Adds Hult, “Now that 40B is real [with the proposal for 20 houses on Long Ridge Road] it will be a much more interesting discussion.”

While the town may have had a reprieve from 40B during the recent economic downturn, “The issues don’t go away,” says Hult. “There are more developers now interested in 40B, and that will be even more true if Jeff [Brem, the developer of Long Ridge] shows he can make money.” ∆