The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 18, 2007


Summit shows path to becoming an affordable community

Bedford Selectman Mark Siegenthaler speaks at the Carlisle Housing Summit on Saturday, May 12. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)
Instead of resisting affordable housing, welcome it as a way to keep a community young and vibrant and provide a place for community members who cannot afford more. That was the message of Bedford Selectman Mark Siegenthaler and Bedford Housing Authority Executive Director Irma Carter as they spoke at the Carlisle Affordable Housing Summit on Saturday, May 12. By adopting a positive attitude toward such housing, educating townspeople, and working with developers to address issues standing in the way of town support, Bedford has been able to exceed the state's 10% affordable housing goal. Currently over 14% of Bedford's housing stock is affordable to those with low and moderate incomes.

The Summit was called by the Carlisle Affordable Housing Trust and the Carlisle Housing Authority (CHA) to begin a dialog on "where we want to go within the next 12 months with the affordable housing plan," according to Selectman and CHA liaison John Williams. The Bedford representatives were invited to explain "how they achieved 10% affordability and lived to tell about it." On this beautiful May day, only about two dozen opted to spend the morning in the Clark Room of Town Hall attending the Summit, with most being members of town boards involved with housing.

Can Carlisle follow Bedford's lead?

Williams pointed to Carlisle's success in the past year, "although we have not pounded any real nails into any real boards." The affordable apartment bylaw passed at Town Meeting; the Affordable Housing Trust was formed; progress was made toward building affordable housing on the Benfield Land, and the hearing on Coventry Woods 40B was concluded. As the town approaches issuing an RFP for development of Benfield next fall, it is useful to look to neighbors who have gone before. Williams noted the two Bedford invitees have experience of "every success and everything that can go wrong with affordable housing."

The difference between where Carlisle stands and what has been achieved in Bedford was clear as Siegenthaler took over. He referred to a poster array of over a dozen completed affordable housing projects, most in house-like colonial and contemporary styles. The first developments were completed in the fifties, with others added through the years. Recent developments have spanned the range, from Patriot Place (ten units of one-bedroom apartments of which seven are affordable) to Avalon Bay, a 139-unit one- and two-bedroom rental development of which 25% is affordable. Just built is the Heritage at Bedford Springs which converted an industrial area into 164 rental units. Most Bedford developments are rental as the state now allows all rental units in a development to be counted as affordable if 25% meet the requirements.

Overcoming opposition

Siegenthaler dismissed the idea that Bedford is too different to be a model for Carlisle, noting people in Bedford moved from the city for peace and quiet and a good place to raise kids, and "have the same values" as people in Carlisle. Affordable housing efforts are often opposed, but "education is the key. You just have to be persistent." Bedford Day has been used as an opportunity to speak with townspeople, and organizations including the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women were enlisted to provide symposia and materials supporting affordable housing. In addition, Siegenthaler points to "a lot of really hard-working volunteers" and his own contribution, which is to "be willing to stand in front of Town Meeting and say, 'This is what we really have to do.'"

Housing serves locals

Another key to achieving town support has been a focus on local preference. The need for lower-cost housing was documented through surveys, including one tucked in with employees' paychecks. With the need established, 70% of new affordable housing was reserved for local preference, widely defined to include not only residents, but former residents, parents and children of residents, town employees, those who attended Bedford schools through the METCO program, and active duty personnel at Hanscom. This allayed fears new residents would not mix into the community.

Also important was a commitment to finding "scattered sites so no one has a big hit." A group of "young, energetic people" surveyed land assets throughout town and called on property owners to find out if they were interested in doing affordable housing. Some town-owned land left undeveloped was used as asset leverage to gain loans for developing other sites. "It's about being as creative as possible," said Siegenthaler. Several financing vehicles were used, including Community Preservation Act funds, housing grants, and town borrowing. Churches were enlisted to help with projects.

In addition, the word went out to developers that "with the right project in the right location . . . we would welcome them," said Siegenthaler. Most recent developments have been LIPs (Local Initiative Projects) where the Selectmen worked in partnership with developers to bring projects to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Even where 40B was the vehicle, the town was able to negotiate concessions to soften opposition. As an example, at Avalon Bay, the developer added two one-family houses to shield two existing homes where owners did not want to abut an apartment complex.

Chapter 40B is a state law that allows developers to bypass most local zoning regulations and file a comprehensive permit with the ZBA if at least 20 - 25% of the housing created qualifies as affordable to those with low and moderate incomes.

New residents fit in

Seigenthaler notes opposition tends to disappear once a development is in place. Even with Avalon Bay, "People are concerned when it's being proposed, but once it's up, no one bats an eye." He adds, "It's hardy visible. You have to drive in to see it." Residents of the development "got acclimated into town just like everyone else. It has fit in well." Most residents of that development walk to school and town services so "the concern all would get in cars was unfounded." And fears that housing values would be affected were unrealized, "House values . . . are booming as they are everywhere else." Even the two new homes built next door to the development sold at market levels.

In summary, according to Seigenthaler a change in philosophy was needed. "Diversity of income is important to the health of a community. We live in a mixed-income world. Why live in a community with only a narrow group of people?" He adds, "Our goal was to exceed 10% and we have." Bedford continues to encourage the creation of affordable housing. Noting how lucky he feels to have been able to raise his children in a town like Bedford, he adds, "I would like others to have the chance we did."

Getting down to nuts and bolts

With the Bedford guests still in attendance, the Housing Summit talk turned to the nuts and bolts of getting affordable housing going in Carlisle. Questions and discussion reflected some issues Carlisle may have that Bedford did not, as well as some advantages, including the ability to avoid some of Bedford's early missteps.

Is Benfield housing viable?

Alan Lehotsky, Chair of the Housing Authority, expressed concern that with 100% affordable units as required by CPA rules, Carlisle may find it hard to locate a development partner for Benfield. He was interested in a Bedford development that seemed roughly comparable to what Carlisle is trying to do, but was disappointed to learn it was built using a $1 or $2 million subsidy from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership that is no longer available. He noted, "We're struggling with the possibility that without massive subsidies, (no one will) build that for us."

Seigenthaler was surprised to learn that CPA rules limit Benfield to 100% affordable, as the developments Bedford has been successful with have been mixed. The difference is that CPA funds used for building have different rules from those used for a land purchase. "Using CPA money for housing is a varied landscape," he conceded. "You're not going to know until you put the RFP out there." He later noted Bedford had had difficulty finding a partner for the development in question, "It's not easy to get someone to come in, even with quite a lot of subsidy."

Environmental issues unresolved

Seigenthaler, in addition to being a Bedford Selectman, holds a state job as Director of Housing Policy for the Department of Housing and Community Development. "I was hoping not to have to put my state hat on," he responded, as he was asked by David Freedman, retiring Chair of the Planning Board, whether "there is discussion at the state to modify 40B for environmental issues." Bedford made the decision to join the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority several years ago, so does not have the well water issues of Carlisle. However, that town is currently in litigation over a development that would generate excessive storm water. Seigenthaler noted recent decisions seemed to reflect that the state Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) "is not oblivious to the environmental controversy."

But Greg Peterson of the Carlisle Housing Trust and Planning Board countered that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) does not have regulations governing small private wells. "We have a situation where we have a community more like one in the western region . . . if the DEP office were in Springfield, maybe they'd understand [us] better." He noted the solution to have town water would cost "billions." Steve Hinton of the Carlisle Waste Water Advisory Committee estimated, "Maybe $100 million." "A great big number," concluded Peterson. He later noted the lack of municipal water is scaring away developers who fear long-term problems with neighboring wells. "The environmental issues are real and problematic."

Bylaw changes discussed

Peterson asked for statistics on the success of Bedford's accessory apartment bylaw. Seigenthaler had previously noted that, because "restrictions scare people," Bedford had opted to allow accessory apartments by right, without the deed restrictions the state requires if they are to count as affordable. Siegenthaler said the apartments do contribute to actual affordability as "older people are staying and younger people coming" to live with family members.

Duplexes are also accepted by right in Bedford as long as the lot area is one and a half times what would be required under single-family zoning. At one time Bedford attempted a project to turn a duplex into affordable housing, but "I don't think I'd do that again. It was too labor intensive." Seigenthaler did not have statistics, but noted accessory and duplex increases have been small and "you're not going to be overrun" as many may fear. In addition, they can be made to blend in, "it doesn't have to be two porches on top of each other."

Freedman was skeptical that it would be worth the Planning Board's time to pursue more bylaw changes that might not impact affordability calculations. "Without the hot button support of qualifying for 40B," other priorities would take precedence.

Lehotsky was interested in an inclusionary zoning bylaw which might trade density for a percentage of profits. Freedman noted developers will find ways around regulations they don't like, and he would prefer to negotiate concessions individually. He pointed to Greystone Crossing where conservation set-asides and pathways on Curve Street were part of the deal. That negotiation would not have been possible if the developer were subject to inclusionary zoning laws. Seigenthaler seemed to agree, and pointed to a Bedford deal in which a residential area was rezoned for a developer who then contributed $125,000 to the Housing Trust.

RFP strategy

John Ballantine and Lehotsky wondered how detailed the RFP should be. Seigenthaler suggested that towns pursuing a LIP (Local Initiative Project), under which the community must sign off, should keep the RFP flexible so that negotiations are not hamstrung. Bedford RFPs do not set out requirements for height and density, although "It's understood we're not a brick apartment building kind of town." The RFP will define the income range but Seigenthaler suggested "Don't specify the program" but set out goals and "see what the developers come back with."

The meeting adjourned at 11:15, though dialog continued over coffee and donuts, with many lingering on until noon. A few days later, Elizabeth Barnet, Carlisle Administrative Coordinator and organizer of the Summit, pronounced herself "inspired and excited" that a dialog had begun between the two towns. "Everyone here got to see these are real people who do it and do it successfully."

Williams agreed that Bedford's was "a successful community effort" and added, "It was a pretty healthy exchange. The feedback has been very positive. They have been successful in getting energy channeled to get to 10% in a way they feel is beneficial to the community."

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito