The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 16, 2001


What type of affordable housing should be support?

Moderator Wayne Davis presided over a lively affordable housing breakout group of 16 participants in the Nickles Room during Saturday's Municipal Planning Day. "What sort of affordable housing should the town support?" was the question he posed to the group. Although no 'silver bullets' were forthcoming, most agreed that affordable housing is long overdue in Carlisle.

Joel Wittenberg of Lowell Street kicked things off by asking, "What is affordable?" Shelley Orenstein of Rodgers Road explained that $94,000 is considered an affordable house, while affordable rent is about $1,025 a month. This brought murmurs of disbelief from the town residents who are used to hearing that a new house in Carlisle can cost over one million dollars.

Mandates and threats

Wittenberg calculated that we need 167 affordable units to be in compliance with the state's ten percent mandate, and then asked what happens if we do nothing. Orenstein responded that we face loss of state and federal funding as well as the possibility that a developer can obtain a comprehensive permit and build affordable units beyond our control. Developers can use just the threat of such action to obtain waivers and special permits for normal (unaffordable) housing. Dorothea Kress of East Riding Drive added that less than one percent of our present housing is affordable and said, "Even if you include senior housing, which generally doesn't qualify as affordable, there are only 21 units in town."

"Forget the threats - we should develop our own plan for affordable housing," asserted Bonnie Miskolczy of Cross Street. All agreed that housing for teachers and other town employees was urgently needed. Kress explained that up to 70 percent of the affordable units can be reserved for those from town, while the rest must be decided by lottery. "If we built five, we'd probably have fifty on the waiting list." Several around the room found the lottery bothersome and that it amounted to a social benefit that's unevenly distributed.

Big bang or small and scattered

Moderator Davis steered the group back to the original question of what sort of affordable housing should the town support. "Should we go with the big bang theory - use economy of scale and build one large affordable development of 35-40 units?" Rick Schmitt of Bedford Road was against the big bang and worried about the septic needs and water supply of such a large complex. Others feared it would become a ghetto. David Erickson of Fiske Street liked the idea of a 'town house' concept of 30-40 units that wouldn't require a subsidy with strings attached, but warned that it could require up to one acre of land per unit when you include septic and water. The onlyobvious town-owned land that could support such a complex is the Town Forest. Paulette Tattersall of Concord Street also liked the economy of clustering. "It's better to have it together and not scattered all over town." The popularity of teardowns (four presently underway) makes the possibility of smaller affordable homes scattered around town even more unfeasible.

Town administrator Madonna McKenzie advised that the town should start small until it gains more experience. She recalled the first affordable housing complex in neighboring Westford when she was a selectman. "Without the proper controls, you may get something you don't want. The town got wiser after the first one, where the septic system failed within the first year." This reinforced Miskolczy's proactive stance. "You're saying we should have these controls in place before the developer comes in. This should be done immediately!" She also advocated bringing in the developers as partners instead of enemies. "In Concord, any development over four units must include an affordable unit." She whimsically added that some of the big houses being built today may be candidates for future apartments such as are found in Cambridge.

No silver bullets

There were more ideas forthcoming as the group became enthusiastically immersed in the importance and urgency of the issue. Davis reluctantly had to wrap up the session and review their results. "There's no silver buffet. Subsides will have strings attached. Get developers involved - ask for help. Start small and work up. We probably won't get it right the first time. Be more proactive and benefit from the Westford experience. Look for a variety of solutions." The unmentioned and possibly biggest challenge had just been met. A group of concerned citizens had gathered to talk about what needed to be done to provide affordable housing in Carlisle and had begun work on finding a solution.

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito