The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, February 9, 2007


Housing Trust contemplates its role, proposes an affordable housing summit

Is it time to revisit the Carlisle Affordable Housing Plan? Would one large affordable development make more sense than the current plan for scattered sites? Should town authorities pursue land purchases or proceed with the plan to develop currently owned properties? These are some of the questions the Carlisle Affordable Housing Trust pondered as it met for the first time on January 30 and considered what its role should be in enabling affordable housing in Carlisle. One outcome was a decision to ask the Housing Authority to co-host a "housing summit" in May to allow the town to weigh in before the next steps are taken.

The Housing Trust was formed by a vote of Town Meeting last spring. Its purpose is to facilitate affordable housing development by taking on functions that would be outside the purview of the Housing Authority as a town government entity. These tasks might include lending, fundraising, soliciting land donations and structuring financial deals using private money. The Trust consists of seven members, five of whom are members of the Board of Selectmen (BOS), one of whom, Greg Peterson, is from the Planning Board, and one, Jim Bohn, from the Housing Authority.

The Trust is a powerful entity in that it is allowed to borrow money without a vote of Town Meeting. This provision was part of the charter because it was felt that flexibility and the ability to seize opportunities could be critical. Stevenson noted that, though it had originally been proposed that fewer BOS members be on the Trust in order to increase housing knowledge, "to my surprise, people wanted us all involved." To ensure a majority of the BOS support any debt obligations, a two-thirds majority (or five of seven members) is required. The Trust currently has $140,000 under its control, all approved by Town Meeting voters in 2006; $90,000 to finance the Accessory Apartment program, and $50,000 for community housing.

Financing vehicle or visionary body?

Bohn envisioned the Trust would be "a financing vehicle for projects" brought to it by the Housing Authority. But Housing Administrator Elizabeth Barnet said she had done extensive research into how other towns are organized and found "there are a lot of different models." She cited Wellesley's trust as one that is a "long-term visionary" group that looks for properties to purchase and takes an active role in working with participants to make affordable housing happen.

Tim Hult suggested a divide which would make the Housing Authority the operational group with the Trust "a financial entity, a vehicle to finance, hold and manage financial assets." But John Williams suggested a different division that would have the Housing Trust a long-term policy-making body with the Authority focused on the nuts and bolts of implementation. Bohn noted the state statute is vague on the Trust's responsibility for the Affordable Housing Plan, "so we could take that on if we wanted to, but on the basis of the statute, we don't have to."

Aggressive trusts enable projects

Barnet offered an example from the town of Bedford. There, the trust is involved in "identifying large parcels for potential use as 40Bs." The trust has presented Bedford Town Meeting with a list of properties, and voters pre-approved designated limits the town would be willing to spend for each property if it were to come on the market. As a result, the town is in a position to move quickly before a developer snatches up an attractive site. She suggested the Carlisle Trust might begin to "start talking to owners" of large properties. "That's a great place to start," agreed Peterson.

Barnet noted her survey of surrounding towns had unearthed good examples of how to do affordable housing, as well as cautionary tales. Wellesley has successfully used both carrots and sticks to get builders to add scattered affordable housing in that town. On the other hand, a less successful single-family renovation cost the town $550,000 and auctioned for just over $200,000, for a net loss to the town of $350,000.

Some other communities have experienced high default rates on affordable housing, possibly due to predatory lending, crime and social issues in affordable housing developments. John Williams was concerned that "the people the state intended to help are falling through the cracks" and Peterson agreed that 40B has not provided expected "work force housing for the cop married to a teacher" because the income limits are too low. Many of these problems could be avoided by working with the right partners.

Tapping private money

Peterson, a real estate lawyer, suggested "tapping private sector strength." He pointed to the Archdiocese of Boston's Office of Urban Affairs as a successful model using this approach to "do the Lord's work." Carlisle could possibly sweeten developer deals by becoming a conduit for federal tax credits meted out by the state. But Hult questioned the likelihood of state help given that Carlisle is "a rich town." Peterson advised the group not to discount the possibility because "there is so little affordable housing in Carlisle" officials might be interested in a town-backed project. Barnet noted Westford received a $3 million state grant "and they're not an impoverished town."

Peterson then pointed to an abandoned state hospital in North Reading that is being turned into 150 to 200 rental units through a town and private developer partnership. Although only 25% of units are affordable, the town gets credit as though all units were. "Why aren't we thinking about enabling that sort of thing?" she asked.

Revisit the Housing Plan?

Stevenson noted that he had originally opposed large developments, but "my position has evolved since the late '90s. You can't get it done two units at a time or you get a Coventry Woods while you're trying to do it." In order to move ahead at the pace required, the scattered developments envisioned in the Carlisle Affordable Housing Plan may need rethinking. "Going for bigger bites means less battles," he concluded.

Williams agreed it may be time to revisit the Affordable Housing Plan which rests on the premise that town-owned land can be used. Most of the potential locations cited are "extremely controversial with conservation issues." He did some quick math and concluded, "If we raise $14 million, we could afford to buy land...and build projects that at the end of the day would not cost us anything."

Hult noted, "I always thought the sentiment in town was for smaller distributed projects. But that may be changing. The town reaction was quite different to Benfield this year with the specter of Coventry Woods." And while the ConsCom has offered cooperation, "I would not be optimistic about getting any conservation land for affordable housing." Hult suggested a housing summit be held to allow the town to give feedback on how to move forward.

A few actions were taken, including voting in John Williams as Chair and agreeing to meet at least quarterly with the next meeting scheduled for March 29 at 7:30 p.m. Barnet will show a short presentation of affordable housing developments.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito