Friday, November 26, 2004
The devil is in the details
Carlisle faces a challenge in keeping planned affordable housing from gradually converting into market-rate housing. The state's 40B regulations allow developers to build high-density housing when at least 25% of the units meet the definition of "affordability." (See "Making 40B work in Massachusetts," by Priscilla Stevens, in the October 1 issue.) In the case of owner-occupied housing, care must be taken to ensure that the resale price stays affordable. This can be accomplished by deed restrictions, or "riders," but there are limitations. For instance, the federal secondary mortgage lender, FANNY MAE, mandates that affordability deed restrictions become null in the event of a mortgage foreclosure. It is impossible to completely protect affordable housing that is not town-owned. It is important, however, that we craft deed restrictions to keep the owner-occupied 40B housing affordable as long as possible.
There is some question whether the Laurel Hollow deed riders described in Maya Liteplo's article on page 1 offer Carlisle the strongest protection available. We may have given the home buyers too much flexibility. In particular, if an owner tries to sell an affordable unit and cannot find a buyer within six months, the individual is allowed to sell the unit at market rate — thereby eliminating one unit of the town's stock of affordable housing.
Carlisle would receive the difference in price, but this might not be much since the seller has no motivation to maximize profits. Given the high cost of land, this money would not be enough to replace the affordable unit. Even though the BOA has said that this contingency is only an "obscure possibility," I believe the town needs more expertise on all the 40B regulations, including details such as deed riders.
The Board of Appeals has help at its disposal, but may need more. Town Counsel's office and a consultant are available to answer specific questions, but it may be time the town provided the BOA with a part-time aide to fully research 40B issues. Until recently, the all-volunteer BOA did not have to contend with these complex state regulations. The Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Board of Health have all needed expertise in administering state directives for years, and they all have paid support staff. These town employees do research, take training classes, consult with each other, and can provide a level of expertise and continuity that is very helpful to the volunteer board members.
Are there other ways that Carlisle can better protect future affordable housing? If the town did have a chance to prevent affordable-to-market-rate conversions by purchasing threatened units, then it would be helpful if the Board of Selectmen were given sufficient bonding authority to allow them to respond with necessary speed.
Another way to protect affordable housing is for the town to develop the housing itself, such as in the planned affordable housing development on the Benfield Land. This may allow the town to impose deed restrictions more easily.
Perhaps the best way to create long-term protection for affordable housing is for Carlisle to build rental units. Becoming a landlord has its own learning curve, but it is an option worth serious consideration.
We want to build affordable housing without having to rebuild it again and again. It would be regrettable — and avoidable — to find ourselves in 20 years bursting with high-density, market-rate housing.
Having recently participated in a discussion involving a Christmas cookie swap, where someone wondered about regulations governing possible contamination if people were allowed to pick up cookies without wearing gloves, I am moved to reflect on an aspect of our current American world, namely, the propensity to avoid all risks, no matter how trivial or remote they may be. It is dismaying to hear and see all the actions undertaken in the name of safety.
One is tempted to announce that safety is bunk, and the pursuit of safety is ruining our society, though that is going too far. And yet there are so many things done in the name of safety that only succeed in making us fearful and our lives more cumbersome and expensive and at the same time less fun, less spontaneous, and less healthy than they should be.
Think of all the things we have been taught to fear in the environment: asbestos, radon, lead, sunlight. There is an element of legitimacy in these fears, but the way they are treated is way out of proportion to the risk. Think of all the things we have been taught to fear to eat: lightly cooked meat, unwashed vegetables, tap water, something touched by human hands, indeed almost anything that hasn't been processed in some way and then kept sterile.
Those of us of a certain age remember any number of commonplace unhygienic practices that don't seem to have done us any harm. We shared one bottle of pop with three friends, sometimes dutifully wiping the neck of the bottle with our palms to avoid transferring germs, and no one died. We ate things that had fallen on the floor or the ground, and no one died. There is a good reason for this. Evolution has equipped us to deal with a good deal of contamination. As Lewis Thomas (a physician) has remarked, bacteria or viruses on their way down our throats are in big trouble, doomed to an onslaught of acids and enzymes that almost surely will do them in. Our immune systems grow in strength and diversity by being challenged. Youngsters raised in a sterile cocoon remain immunologically weak. There is wisdom in the remark that you must eat a peck of earth before you die.
Extending this idea, exposure to some degree of risk engenders respect for (not fear of) the danger and knowledge and confidence for meeting it. Similarly, exposure to failure engenders the courage to risk failure and lessons to avoid it. It is as if we had a psychological immune system that must be challenged to grow to its full capacity.
It's as well to take a skeptical stance when confronted with people urging a course of action in the name of safety. It is always a hard position to challenge, which may be the reason that bullies adopt it. (How can one be opposed to an action which might conceivably save someone from injury, illness, or worse?) Often proponents of safety are actually pursuing their own agendas: broadcasters attempting to jazz up the news, manufacturers looking to pump up sales, tort lawyers seeking to drum up business. We'd all be a lot safer if we didn't take such pains to avoid remote risks.
© 2004 The