Housing Authority works patiently to increase affordable housing in Carlisle

by Cecile Sandwen

Housing Coordinator Elizabeth Barnett (left) stands with members of the Carlisle Housing Authority. Shown are (left to right) standing, Barbara Bjornson, Chair Alan Lehotsky and Mark Levitan. Seated are Steve Pearlman and Carolyn Ing. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

Alan Lehotsky, chair of the Carlisle Housing Authority, points with satisfaction to the new group residence going up on Bedford Road. “Have you been by?” He asks. “It’s beginning to look like a real building.” With the end of that project in sight and a one-year moratorium on 40B achieved, the Housing Authority will begin to look to the next challenge. Eventually, by chipping away year after year, the members hope to someday achieve the 10% affordability that will keep Carlisle safe from unwanted development.

Lehotsky has served on the Housing Authority for 16 years. He has seen the committee weather bumps on the road, but also have success expanding housing for middle-income households. Together with the Carlisle Affordable Housing Trust, the Housing Authority has worked for years to bring the nine-unit home for developmentally disabled adults to reality, as well as the 26-unit Benfield Farms senior housing completed two years ago. These projects have helped raise Carlisle affordability to 3.1%, according to Housing Coordinator Elizabeth Barnett.

Active response to state law

The impetus behind the 10% affordability goal is state law 40B. This allows developers of housing projects that are 25% affordable to work under a suspension of local zoning (such as Carlisle’s two-acre minimum) in municipalities where affordability is below the 10% level. Many fear 40B could encourage unsightly projects that would harm the character of Carlisle. By developing its own projects, the Housing Authority can ensure that every unit, not just the 25% a developer would target, counts toward its goals. Also, each time the town adds nine affordable units it earns a one-year suspension of 40B.

A Carlisle moratorium is currently in place, but will expire in early 2017. A Housing Production Plan, updated every five years, provides several ideas for how to increase the stock of affordable housing. Two ideas will be given a thorough vetting, says Lehotsky: a small, friendly development on land along Concord Street (the site of Coventry Woods, a 40B development that was proposed several years ago but never built), and an expansion of Village Court, which currently has 18 units of affordable senior housing.

Family housing a high priority

“The state gave us money for Benfield,” adds Lehotsky. “But now they’ve made it clear—we need to be making real forward progress on family housing.” Such housing would include seniors, but would not be age-restricted. “The cost of housing in Massachusetts is limiting economic growth,” says Lehotsky. “Even those with well paid high-tech jobs can’t afford to live here.” The Boston Globe 11/20/2015 confirmed, “Census figures show Boston is losing workers to other innovation hubs with more robust housing construction and lower median home prices.” Barnett notes that nearly every day she receives a call from someone inquiring about affordable options in Carlisle.

For its next project, the Housing Authority plans to take a closer look at the Coventry Woods land. “The town did not want 50 condos and two septic systems, but there was support for a smaller development,” says Lehotsky. The Housing Authority will contact the owner and explore the opportunity of bringing a family housing project forward.  

One possibility is a rental development of about 30 units, about the minimum that would be economically feasible. The state is considering a bill that would provide financing for low-unit affordable projects in rural towns that cannot support large-scale construction. The passage of that bill would benefit Carlisle by making more projects financially workable.

Village Court next?

Once a family housing plan has been implemented, the Housing Authority will look at expanding Village Court. The first step would be to examine a tie-in to the Carlisle School’s wastewater treatment plant on the Banta-Davis Land to eliminate the need for a Village Court septic system. The freed-up land could then be used for expanded senior housing.

There are several hurdles to be overcome, including cost, regulation, and the need for a zoning bylaw change. But Lehotsky anticipates existing residents will have reason to support the plan, “The septic system at Village Court is 30 years old. This would reduce the risk to the water supply.”

Experienced members work well together

“It’s a very challenging board,” says Barnett, who works for the Housing Authority 28 hours a week. “They keep me on my toes, and I like that.” In addition to Lehotsky, the group includes Mark Levitan, vice chair, Steve Pearlman, treasurer, Carolyn Ing and Barbara Bjornson. Each is elected, other than the governor’s appointee, currently Ing. All serve five-year terms.

The board includes a range of experience. Steve Pearlman joined with Lehotsky in 2000, and together they provide the consistency and background knowledge. Pearlman was for many years an environmental lawyer. Ing worked in commercial real estate investment and management, and joined the board in 2010. Levitan spent 35 years in business and joined the Housing Authority in 2014. Newest member Barbara Bjornson, who joined last year, served on the Finance Committee, and also brings a business background and experience working with a protected population. Bjornson is running for election to a full five-year term this spring. 

Ing was drawn to the board by her involvement in real estate,  “I was on the developer’s side (in front of town boards) and am now on the town’s side. It gives me a different perspective and has been very interesting.” She adds, “Being a resident, I want things to stay the same, but I know Carlisle has to change along with the rest of the state.” Ing will need to be reappointed soon, and she says she will reup, “I enjoy working with the other members. It’s a diverse committee, but we work well together.”

Levitan joined after writing several columns for the Mosquito Forum on the subject of 40B, “I have an appreciation for the natural environment, but also some sympathy for the struggling people of the community,” he says. “We have a good committee,” he adds.” There’s professionalism and a commitment to finding solutions and building consensus.” He has seen the members “learn some lessons about communication and pulling things together with other boards.” He aims for an approach that is respectful, but direct, “not shying away from difficult discussions.”

Lehotsky cites Levitan’s value in analyzing Carlisle’s possible adherence with a part of the 40B law that provides an alternative to the 10% affordability route. This is for communities with 1.5% of developable land committed to affordable housing. The town was about to pay a consultant to do the evaluation but Levitan showed that, “Even with optimistic assumptions we are so far from getting to that, we would have to build more than we need for the nine units per year route,” says Lehotsky.

Housing Trust does ground work

The Housing Trust is another town entity devoted to expanding affordable housing. It was founded in 2006 and contains all the Selectmen and two selectmen appointees. Currently those are Chair Karina Coombs and Housing Authority liaison Carolyn Ing. 

Ing describes the roles of the two committees, noting the Housing Trust is “more big picture and about executing potential opportunities,” including planning, initial funding and land purchases to get projects started. “It takes the long-term view,” she adds. “The Selectmen bring a perspective that includes other issues and concerns of the town.” 

Lehotsky points out that the Housing Trust originally was “therotically a vehicle for acquiring capital, including donations. That’s something I wish they would more aggressively pursue.” He believes there are some in town who would contribute to a fund advancing housing for those without high incomes.

Authority is the ‘implementer’

On the other hand, “The Housing Authority is the implementer that brings a project forward,” says Ing, This includes the nitty-gritty of working through land-use details, choosing development and management partners, and negotiating rental agreements.  As a public agency, “The Housing Authority can enter into long-term leasing contracts towns are not allowed to,” says Ing. “This includes leases longer than 25 years.”

By state law, housing authorities are public agencies that can rent or own property, enter into contracts and manage property. But in Carlisle, “We own no buildings and manage no projects,” says Lehotsky, adding that the Authority does own the land that the Benfield housing is on. Because Carlisle is small, “We don’t have the expertise or manpower so we wisely stay out of that,” he adds. “Instead we develop public-private partnerships.”

Challenges ahead

If there is a character trait shared by all Housing Authority members, it may be patience. Both Benfield and Goff required many years to come to fruition. “Any kind of investment requires a huge amount of due diligence,” says Barnett. “You need care and thoughtfulness.” She notes that other towns’ timeframes are the same, “It can take five to ten years depending on the project. This is especially true if there’s a large funding source.” In addition not every project considered works out. 

Lehotsky knows there are those who want to see 40B disappear, but he says, “I’ve been working on affordable housing for 18 years and haven’t found anything that would work better.” An initiative to repeal the law was on the state ballot some years ago and failed. Now at the state level, he says, “There’s a general consensus 40B is here to stay. The legislature is solidly behind it.” 

Eighty percent of Carlisle voters supported the Goff project, and Lehotsky says, “That’s pretty indicative of where the general consensus is.” He adds that there are townspeople who volunteer to help out the committee in various ways, and also to talk to their friends and neighbors. While the challenges remain, there is also reward, says Lehotsky,  “Many say thank you for what you are doing.” ∆