Friday, December 14, 2007
Carlisle Housing Authority tackles challenge of adding affordable homes
[Ed note: The following is part of an occasional series of profiles of town boards and committees. Another profile, an introduction to the Personnel Board appears on page 4]
Two decades after the Carlisle Housing Authority was established, the town is poised to create its first public affordable housing development and the five volunteers serving on the Housing Authority are dedicated to making it happen.
The Housing Authority is currently focusing its energies on a Request for Proposal (RFP) for firms to develop and manage 26 rental units of senior housing on the Benfield property. In their meeting of December 4, they allocated $4,500 to hire Karen Sunnarborg to help with the RFP. Sunnarborg also helped to create the Carlisle Affordable Housing Plan done in 2005. The Authority is applying for a Priority Development Fund grant from the state to pay this consultant. The goal of the Priority Development Fund is to increase the number of mixed-income housing developments in Massachusetts, and the grants are used as "gap" financing for rental housing development.
The Benfield housing will be built near the front of the 45-acre South Street parcel in an area a little over four acres in size, while the well and septic system will be located in the back of the property. The Benfield Land was purchased by the town in 2004 for the multiple purposes of affordable housing, open space preservation, and as a possible future site for an athletic field.
Why a Housing Authority?
Carlisle created the Housing Authority to help increase the amount of affordable housing in response to the state's goal that 10% of a town's housing stock be affordable to moderate- and low-income households. Towns that do not meet this target are vulnerable to high- density development authorized under state law Chapter 40B, which allows builders to bypass local zoning regulations, if at least a quarter of a development's units are affordable.
For many years the only housing in town that qualified as affordable was the senior housing in Carlisle Village Court on Church Street. The non-profit Carlisle Elderly Housing Association, Inc. built the 18-unit Village Court in 1982 with the help of donated town land, a Federal Home Administration construction loan and rent subsidies funded by Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
In 2006 the private Rocky Point development built on Lowell Street added two affordable condominiums.
These 20 units of affordable housing comprise slightly over 1% of the town's current housing stock. Roughly another 150 units would be needed to meet the 10% target.
The Carlisle Housing Authority was created by Town Meeting in 1987 with the hope that added affordable housing would bring greater diversity to the town and would help to protect against unfriendly 40B developments. Translating the goal into reality has proven difficult, as early projects to put housing on town land ran into problems.
In 1994 the Housing Authority tried to build a small rental development on Russell Street on land bequeathed to the town by Katherine Kulmala. She gave her property to be used for recreation, conservation or civic needs, along with a $50,000 trust fund for maintenance. If the property was not needed for these uses, she left instructions that it was to be given to the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
The Housing Authority was still working on a feasibility plan showing financial viability for a development of five or six rental units, when in April, 1994, the Town Meeting voted to convey the property to the Massachusetts Audubon Society. According to the arrangements, the Society would then sell the property and provide the town with two-thirds of the proceeds, to be used for the purchase of conservation land in Carlisle.
Although the Housing Authority was disappointed with the sale of the property, they felt their research had been useful because it indicated that if land could be obtained, small affordable housing projects could be built and operated in Carlisle with no additional cost to the town.
In 1999, the town authorized the Housing Authority to spend up to $30,000 for a site plan and schematic diagrams for an affordable housing project on the 54-acre Conant Land. A plan was drawn up for seven rental units using six acres of the property along Rockland Road, but concerns about the impact on valued open space and town center water resources led to the proposal's eventual defeat at Town Meeting in 2000.
Soon after that, the Housing Authority proposed using a portion of the Town Forest for affordable housing, but that idea was dropped because of uncertainties about the property boundaries and about legal restrictions on a change in use.
Unlike the earlier ill-fated projects, the Benfield Land is the first town property purchased with affordable housing in mind.
Housing Authority members
Current Housing Authority members include Chair Alan Lehotsky, James Bohn, Eugenia Harris, Steven Pearlman and Susan Stamps. Four are elected by the town while the fifth slot, filled by Harris, is appointed by the governor. Terms are five years in length, and all members are in their first or second term.
The volunteers bring a variety of skills and backgrounds to the Housing Authority. For instance, Stamps and Pearlman are both attorneys, and Stamps said that their legal skills, particularly in reading and writing contracts, will be helpful.
Stamps is also trained in mediation which helps the group reach consensus.
She has a long history of volunteering her time to the town and being an activist on many fronts. Stamps served on the Personnel Board for ten years and was involved in three different search committees for a Town Administrator. She was part of the town's bargaining team for several police contracts and she worked on the Wage and Classification Study that is now used to set salaries for Town Hall employees. "I feel very plugged into the town. I hear from a lot of people and I bring that to the table with me." Stamps was also involved in the project to build Carlisle Village Court.
A Carlisle resident for 15 years, Pearlman has worked on environmental regulation for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and has served for many years on the Carlisle Trails Committee. He believes that because the Benfield Land was purchased for the three purposes of recreation, conservation and affordable housing, the Housing Authority "has to have the ability to work with other groups." Pearlman noted, "That is important There is a coalition of interests involved."
Working together was a common theme. Bohn said, "Housing Authority members need the ability to get along with a diverse set of people. You need a willingness to listen to people with different points of view."
Bohn has a background in finance and worked in housing economics in the 1990s. "I have a keen interest on the costs and benefits of development." He felt volunteering his time on the Housing Authority would be beneficial to the town. Bohn said, "I thought I had good qualifications to make a contribution."
Lehotsky is the most senior member of the Carlisle Housing Authority, and will have served six years in April. He brings management and consulting experience to the group.
Harris says, "I am a software engineer by profession, with an interest in architecture and design on the side. I lack formal training in architecture, aside from a couple of night courses." She has experimented on her own house, "trying to achieve good design at rock-bottom prices and recycled materials" and hopes these hands-on experiences will help in developing affordable housing. Harris has recused herself from voting on Benfield issues because her property line is very close to the Benfield property.
Marty Galligan, who had been on the Carlisle Housing Authority for 14 years before Lehotsky, was influential in getting both Lehotsky and Harris to join. Lehotsky said, "Marty had been grooming me for his position [as chair]." Harris said, "Marty Galligan approached me about it a couple years ago. He knew I was interested in housing issues and suggested that the Carlisle Housing Authority might be a good place for me to learn more."
Barnett has expertise in urban planning. Everyone on the committee praised Barnett for all the research she does and answers she brings to the meetings. Stamps said, "I have been feeling very good since Elizabeth came on board; it's been wonderful. We can talk about issues and she does a lot of work for us and comes back with information. We've been very productive with Elizabeth there." Bohn credited her with finding facts about senior housing and the financing for it which allowed them to make Benfield a senior housing project.
Seeking consensus on Benfield
Both Pearlman and Bohn feel it is important that the Benfield project satisfy the neighbors. "If we lose the community support on this one, it will be very hard to get another [project] passed," said Bohn. He has sought a housing format that can be accepted by abutters, favoring housing for seniors because it is generally smaller than housing for families. "A smaller footprint would be less intrusive on the neighborhood. Abutters want a quiet neighborhood to match the existing housing." Bohn said it is his biggest accomplishment to get consensus on that issue. "It changed the dynamic between the abutters and the project."
Lehotsky noted it takes a long time to get consensus, but said, "It is important to keep us out of court. The steam-rolling approach is not good." He commented that there are huge legal fees for Coventry Woods (a proposed development off Concord Street). "The net result of a drawn-out process will have enormous expense. A whole lot of lawyers are making lots of money and no housing is being built."
Shape the growth
or it may shape the town
Through the years the Housing Authority has stressed the importance of an active town role in providing affordable housing in order to avoid possible problems of rapid growth through 40B projects. Lehotsky said, "We can do nothing and get some affordable housing through 40B projectsOr we can take a stand, and it will put us in a much stronger position." Stamps agreed with him. "We're going to get 40B housing one way or another. The Housing Authority can make it a process to preserve the town." Pearlman commented on the benefit of the Carlisle Housing Authority developing housing on Benfield. "If we put up 26 units, that would give us a two-year exemption. We wouldn't have to accept any 40B projects for those two years."
Slow pace of change
When asked what the biggest frustration is, many on the board commented on how slowly things get done. "It takes quite a bit of time to get things moving," commented Bohn. Harris noted that one reason it takes time is because there is so much to learn, "The development of affordable housing is so incredibly complex, with major portions of it driven by arcane financing options and complex regulatory frameworks. I've attended many training sessionsand while I have learned a lot at every one of the sessions, I've come away from each of them dismayed at how much I still have to learn."
The Carlisle Housing Authority is not just developing the Benfield property. They are concurrently looking into other avenues to generate new affordable housing, including affordable accessory apartments, creating a home for the mentally handicapped, or perhaps expanding Village Court. They hope eventually to have several small affordable housing projects sprinkled across the town.
Serving unmet needs
Bohn thinks, "We should serve the portion of the population that is under-served. There's no place to downsize here. Also, parents in this community with mentally handicapped adult children would like to have care [for these children] within the community. Housing for the mentally handicapped would serve an unmet need." Lehotsky is also an advocate of such a housing project and explained how the Department of Mental Retardation would help with financing, "We provide the land and they build. It doesn't cost us anything." With a group home for the mentally handicapped, each bedroom would be counted as an "affordable housing unit" towards the 10% required by law.
The Housing Authority is also looking into affordable accessory apartments, but does not yet have state approval for Carlisle's proposed program.
A new tool — the Housing Trust
The Affordable Housing Trust was created by Town Meeting in the spring of 2006. Lehotsky said the Housing Trust is a good vehicle for financing. "The Trust is very flexible. It is allowed to raise money and buy and sell property without a Town Meeting vote." The Housing Trust is made up of the Board of Selectmen, and two members-at-large, Greg Peterson of the Planning Board and James Bohn from the Authority.
Stamps and Pearlman both believe that affordable housing may bring greater diversity, which would be good for the town. Pearlman said, "I wanted to see greater diversity in Carlisle, both economic and racial. My son was in the Carlisle School and is now at the high school. Diversity would be good for him."
"Diversity is really important for every town," Stamps agreed, adding, "It's a healthy thing. It's good in the classroom and on town boards. It would be nice to have that."
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