The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 30, 2004


40B housing mushrooms in surrounding towns: 10% affordable housing seems unattainable for most

As land and housing prices have skyrocketed over the last 35 years, retirees and young adults have found that they cannot afford to live in their own communities. In towns surrounding Carlisle, the need for affordable housing has stimulated the growth of retirement communities, starter home villages, and housing complexes for lower-income citizens, many of which are high-density housing developments under Chapter 40B. The question in every town is how to strike the right balance between keeping people in the town and preserving the town's integrity, or at least its perceived character.

The four-acre parcel at 302 Lowell Street has been cleared for Carlisle's first 40B housing development. Two of the eight units will be affordable. (Photo by Mike Quayle)

What is 40B?

Statewide, 82% of all new affordable housing projects in the last five years are attributed to 40B. The acronym "40B" refers to a section of Chapter 177 of the Acts of 1969 of the Massachusetts General Laws.

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Law, or Chapter 40B, allows the state to override local zoning and other restrictions in communities where less than 10% of year-round housing is deemed affordable. To qualify for a 40B comprehensive permit at least 25% of housing units in a development must be affordable to housholds earning no more than than 80% of area median income and the developer's profit must not exceed 20%. The latter is frequently difficult to calculate and verify.

Affordable housing and population growth

Generally, 100% of town-built housing complexes are affordable. However, commercial 40B developments are only 25% affordable, while 75% of the units are market rate.

As Carlisle's neighbor towns attempt to meet the 10% affordable housing requirement, the mushrooming commercial 40B developments raise significant concerns over the loss of open space and the impact that increased populations place on water supplies and sewer/septic capacity, traffic volume, schools, and use of town facilities. Among Acton, Bedford, Billerica, Carlisle, Chelmsford, Concord, and Westford, not one community has yet reached the 10% level of affordable housing mandated by the state.

Concerns and objections

Towns have had only limited success in guiding or slowing 40B development.

Bedford has a citizens' advocacy group called the Bedford Neighborhood Alliance, with over 800 members: a response team to fight "unfriendly affordable housing projects."

The Westford Eagle reported on July 15 that "Selectmen voted unanimously to approve the Chapter 40B Development Guidelines drawn up by the [town's] Chapter 40B Performance Standards Committee." The committee proposed these guidelines, which define specifically what the town would approve in terms of density of the settings, number of units per building, appearance and design, as a standard tool to offer every project applicant. The guidelines grew out of a perception about its Rosegate development, that other projects might be "hideous," or "an abuse of land." Although they do not "have the same weight as zoning bylaws or the Planning Board's rules and regulations," committee chair Veronica Whitehouse "said the idea was for the town to give developers an idea of what would facilitate the zoning process." Guidelines would provide consistency, hopefully aiding the town's position in an appeals process as well.

In addition to particular municipal responses to 40B proposals and projects, unhappy citizens and legislators across the state seek to change the 40B law itself. Suggestions range from exempting so-called "blue-collar" towns altogether to increasing the percentage of affordable units built in a 40B project from 25% to 35%, and reducing a developer's profit in such a project from 20% to 10%.


Bedford, with 4.5% affordable housing, has recently approved a project on a 49.9-acre parcel of land on Concord Road that will accommodate 156 housing units, including 32 affordable. Originally proposed were 213 units with 54 affordable, but arguments involving water use and excessive traffic convinced the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) to reduce the size of the development. Despite approval by the ZBA on May 18, the project is currently in court.

Currently under construction, the Village at Concord Road on Route 62 in Bedford will have 20 rental units, five of which will be affordable. (Photo by Priscilla Stevens)

Approved by the ZBA in 2002, Avalon Bay is a 139-unit project at Davis and Concord Roads with 35 affordable units. Also in court at this time, there is a healthy protest against its construction showing up around town in the form of lawn signage.

Bedford has three other properties in deliberation by the ZBA, one under construction, and one approved but not yet under construction. Under discussion also is the conversion of the Bedford Motel on North Road to a 67-unit age-restricted condominium complex with affordable housing components. This latter development would involve rezoning the area from commercial to residential, but proponents see it as a creative and positive use of the property that will increase the pedestrian areas surrounding the motel.


Concord has 21 housing projects in existence or under construction, with a total of 300 units counted toward subsidized affordable housing. Projects there tend to be smaller, ranging from a single unit to the 52-unit elderly rental property called Everett Gardens. In addition there are five more properties either in process or in discussion with 67 new affordable units planned. Concord has maintained control of much of the building, with the Concord Housing Authority sponsoring by far the majority of these projects.


Betty McManus of the Acton Housing Authority listed four Acton Housing Authority-sponsored properties built in the 1980's: a group residency for twelve handicapped persons, a condominium complex of 142 units, a nine-condominium complex with 27 units, and another with three low-income units. She also listed other several small developments: McCarthy Village and Windsor Greene, both containing units for the elderly, Crossroads and West Side Village, with 28 units between them, three of which are first-time (starter) units, and Harris Village. Two more properties have been approved as well: the 32-unit Franklin Place now breaking ground and the eight-unit River Street project.


Since June 2001, Chelmsford has reviewed nine 40B projects. With a current base housing unit number of 12,981 and 704 40B units planned or in existence, the town stands at 5.42% affordable housing and, pending approval by the Board of Appeals on two other projects, needs to add 482 units to reach 10%. Chelmsford's Community Development Coordinator Andrew Sheehan reports that a total of 14 projects have been approved, hearings on two more have recently closed, and decisions are pending on an additional two, one of which is a 108-unit rental project and the other a 16-unit townhouse project. He adds that if the Board of Appeals approves the two latest projects currently on its agenda, Chelmsford's percentage of affordable housing units will rise to 6.29%.

Chelmsford demonstrates a breadth of projects and, at this time, seems to be in the lead in the race to build, with four projects under construction: Delaney Terrace on Sheila Avenue, a 51-unit elderly housing complex, Princeton Street's Windemere, a 56-unit 55+ homeownership property with 14 affordable units, the Village at Glen Isle on Glen Avenue, a 32-unit homeownership property with eight affordable units, and Orchard Hills/Turnpike Woods on Turnpike Road, a 24-unit homeownership property with six affordable starter units. On June 15, the Lowell Sun reported that a developer is proposing a 20-unit detached condominium project on Robin Hill Road. Acreage for all the town's affordable housing properties varies. Chelmsford has built six units on less than two acres, 144 units on 8.41 acres, 56 units on 10 acres, and 108 units on 5.69 acres, as a cross-section of projects.


Billerica's Director of Planning Peter Kennedy reports that six 40B projects are in hearings, in appeal, or planned in his town, one is under construction, and one has been completed to date. Of these, the Villas at Old Concord, on Concord Road at the Route 3 interchange, and Princeton at Boston Road, on Boston Road at Glad Valley Drive, are large projects with 180 units each. All existing and planned projects are 25% affordable.


Westford, at slightly under 2% affordable housing has lost ground since 1998, when its affordable housing ranked at 2.35%. In the last few months, Westford has approved three new 40B projects, all with 25% affordable units: one under construction with ten units, and two still on the boards with eight and 32 units respectively.

Housing booms increase the challenge

Westford's rapid housing growth in the 1990s makes it difficult to achieve the required 10% affordable housing percentage, and has prompted an influx of 40B permit applicants.

The same is true for Acton. According to the Acton Master Plan, updated in 1998, Westford logged more residential housing permits (736) in that decade than any other town in the region. Second only to Westford in the number of residential building permits issued during that time, Acton listed 450 permits (compared to Carlisle's 106). "Acton," says the Master Plan, "still lags in the provision of affordable housing, even in comparison to surrounding communities with similar or higher average incomes and residential values." In 1998, Acton listed its affordable housing percentage at 2.1%, and compared it unfavorably to the state average of 8.53% and to most communities in the I-495 corridor.

In 1998, Bedford's percentage, at 4.58%, was fairly consistent with its percentage today. All of Carlisle's neighbors have action plans and some have guidelines similar to Westford's, hoping that with a plan to present to the state, towns can maintain more control over how many and what kind of affordable housing developments will serve their residents.

Getting to 10%

There is a consensus among our neighbors, even those who, as Chelmsford's Andrew Sheehan says of his town, have been "hit hard by 40B," that slow and steady progress is needed. Town Master Plans project probable residential growth as leveling off from the high rates of the 1990s. They hope that by exerting as much control as possible through guidelines and prudent planning they will be able to get to the10% affordable housing mark, while preserving their values and ambience. That remains a formidable challenge.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito