Friday, March 31, 2006
What kind of Trust are we talking about?
At Town Meeting this May, Carlisle residents are being asked to create a new legal entity, a Carlisle Affordable Housing Trust Fund to help create and preserve housing for low and moderate income households. It makes sense to learn as much as possible about this new idea: How will it help Carlisle? Who will manage the Trust Fund? Will there be any oversight? Have other towns created Housing Trusts? Are they all alike, or are there different ways to structure it?
An Affordable Housing Trust is an important tool to help Carlisle reach the state-mandated goal that 10% of our housing stock meet affordability criteria. Once money is transferred to the Trust Fund, it will remain available, without needing annual authorization or any further vote at Town Meeting. Having a ready source of funding will allow the town to more easily develop affordable housing projects.
Where will the Trust money come from? Money collected under the Community Preservation Act (CPA) real estate tax surcharge can be transferred to the Housing Trust. Town Meeting can appropriate additional funds, and the Trust will also be able to accept monies such as housing-related gifts, payments or grants that might otherwise be "lost" to the town's general fund. An example of such a payment would be the penalty due from a 40B developer whose profits exceeded the 20% margin allowed by the state.
Towns can create housing trusts by accepting Mass. General Law Chapter 44, section 55c. The law states that trusts will be managed by a Board of at least five Trustees, and that the Board's powers may include: to accept, buy, sell or lease property, hire employees, borrow money and mortgage trust assets. Oversight is provided by a yearly audit, and by the requirement that Trustees shall include "the chief executive officer" of a city or town. This has been interpreted to mean that the entire Board of Selectmen will become Trustees, but pending legislation may reduce the requirement to one Selectman. Selectmen may appoint additional Trustees to terms of up to two years. Trustee meetings are subject to public records and open meeting laws, as are other town committees and boards.
Towns define the Trust
Normally, towns give the Housing Trust the powers to buy and sell land without Town Meeting approval, but some towns have modified the powers of the Board of Trustees by adding language to their Housing Trust Fund definition. For instance, Westford requires Selectmen approval of any purchase, sale or lease of real property, and also requires a two-thirds majority Town Meeting approval before their Housing Trust can incur debt. Carlisle's draft, made public at the March 28 BOS meeting, provides similar, and additional, BOS/Town Meeting oversight.
I still have many questions about how an Affordable Housing Trust Fund will work in Carlisle. • Will the Selectmen form a majority on the Board of Trustees, or could they be overruled by others? • Do we want to empower the Trustees to build market-rate, or only affordable housing on town-owned land? • How will the Trustees interact with the Housing Authority? • Should CPA money transfers to the Trust be limited to projects where the housing has affordability restrictions in place, or is it all right if CPA funds are spent for any Housing Trust expenses? • And what will be the definition of "affordable" housing? Will it be defined as 80% of the median area income, as is used in 40B developments, or will it be a threshold of 110% as is used in other state statutes? • Do other towns have good ideas for structuring the Housing Trust Fund that we could benefit from?
Thorough discussion is needed to ensure Carlisle creates a flexible and well-managed Housing Trust. Warrant Article 25 authorizes the Selectmen to establish the Trust, but Town Administrator Madonna McKenzie said that Carlisle voters will not have any vote on the details. Why not? Last year Westford included the entire definition of the Housing Trust, its composition and powers, in their Town Meeting Warrant.
Housing Authority Chair Alan Lehotsky told me he did not plan to hold a special public presentation on the Housing Trust proposal. Selectman Doug Stevenson said the Selectmen may discuss it at their meeting on April 11.
According to the Patriot Ledger, Marshfield Town Meeting recently voted down an affordable housing trust fund proposal. I hope that Carlisle residents will understand all the options and benefits of creating a Housing Trust well before Town Meeting.
The official First Day of Spring has come and gone, remaining as just another day on our New England calendars. It's been eight weeks (and a day, but who is counting) since the still-hibernating Punxsutawney Phil came out of his burrow to announce to the cheers of an anticipating crowd: "It's my shadow I see. Six more weeks of mild winter there will be" — and down there in Pennsylvania, plans for a 2007 Groundhog Day are already underway (at least according to their website, www.groundhog.org).
Anyway, since when do we let a sleepy, furry marmot show us the light (or its shadow, for that matter) when it comes to such essential matters as weather prediction? Well, as a matter of fact, apparently since the Dark Ageswhen German peasants first noticed a connection between a hedgehog emerging from hibernation into a bright, sunlit winter day, only to crawl back in its burrow after seeing its shadow, and the six weeks which usually followed until the end of winter. The tradition was carried on in America by German settlers; the native groundhog naturally replaced the European hedgehog, and the rest is yet another chapter in American folklore, and an occasion for annual media frenzy.
In late March, one still has to venture out of Carlisle and its winding country roads to see that spring has actually sprung. New England, the first in planting the seeds of the nation, is certainly a late bloomer when it comes to spring weather.
Last week I found spring in the most unlikely place of all — the jungle of concrete, steel and glass of New York City. I didn't particularly expect to find much of it there, but as a witty urban quip on nature, there it was — Grass Roots Garden shop in the middle of Spring Street. In this city which is known more for its Broadway showbiz scene, there is also West Broadway with its legendary Smith & Hawken, which made gardening seem as hip and stylish as any of those recent home improvement shows on television.
Down Park Avenue, which is a park only by name and association, Bradford pear trees lined up against the tall buildings in all their white glory. My daughter, currently a freshman at the city's university, was instantly reminded of the Carlisle school yard, and of these same trees which were awarded the name Dead Fish Trees for the distinctive odor of their blossom.
And in Greenwich Village, which is neither green nor a village, hyacinths, tulips and daffodils erected their green stalks, as if in a prologue for the "big show" of color and fragrance that will soon follow. Along the cobblestone streets, swollen buds already tinge the barren trees in that sulfuric green so typical of early spring.
It shouldn't be long now before a similar burst of spring bloom will finally hit our yards, but as of last week, there were still fewer tulip buds than campaign signs sprouting left and right on lawns in neighboring Chelmsford.
Meanwhile, if push comes to shovel in our Isle of Carl, it might have to be the ferns at the center of town, as the daisies of the past, which remind us of the emerging new season. Give me a (spring) break!
© 2006 The