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Protecting Affordable Housing in Massachusetts: Vote No on Question #2

Posted: October 21, 2010

Question 2, on the ballot this November, would eliminate the state’s key affordable housing law (Chapter 40B). It has been a very successful law, creating 58,000 units of affordable housing since its inception—for teachers, firefighters and seniors.  Here at JCHE, we built 146 units at Coleman House and 75 units at Golda Meir House in Newton, and now have 150 units under construction in Framingham.  That’s why I’m voting No on Question 2.  If the referendum passes and 40B is overturned, it would greatly undermine our ability to develop safe, affordable housing for seniors.

While 40B supports the development of affordable housing for both working families and seniors, at JCHE our focus is on seniors.  At JCHE we are incredibly proud of our track record at providing the highest quality housing to seniors with low incomes.  Our residents have worked their whole lives and contributed richly to their communities—and continue to do so through volunteering, mentoring and supporting each other.  Despite this history of societal contributions, they often find the high cost of housing in Massachusetts unaffordable (that is, as long as they want to eat and take basic medications as well as have a roof over their heads). 

The law is rather straight-forward.  If less than 10% of a city or town’s housing is affordable, developers who are willing to set aside 20-25% of units for low- and moderate-income households are allowed to build locally-sensitive multi-family housing.  Like all development, the developer engages in a permitting process coordinated by the local zoning board.  However, if a community’s zoning mandates low density, precluding affordable housing, 40B allows them to develop a reasonable number of units required, making the project economically feasible. 

Without this law, it would be impossible to develop affordable housing outside of our urban centers. We just need to look at the past 10 years to know that 40B has been a significant and successful force in Massachusetts: over 80% of all affordable housing built outside of major cities in the state was created with 40B.

Coleman House, one of JCHE’s vibrant communities, was built via 40B in 1983 and 1988 (2 phases). Shillman House, which we are now building in Framingham, is also a 40B development. The underlying zoning limited density to the point of economic infeasibility. At Coleman in Newton, more than 160 older adults feel safe, supported and independent in a community that they otherwise would not be able to afford.  Soon a comparable number of seniors will find Shillman House in Framingham conducive to a quality of life they deserve and would not otherwise find.

Why should we care as a society whether there is adequate affordable housing for seniors?  According to census data, almost all of the population growth expected in Massachusetts in the coming decade is in the age group “over 60” with a very significant portion in the “over 80” category.  Predictably, a sizable percentage of these older adults will be unable to afford decent, safe housing in the communities they lived, raised children, paid taxes and worked—or where their adult children live.  Unless we expand the supply of senior affordable housing throughout Massachusetts, our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers will be faced with untenable choices—like between eating and paying the rent, living far from their families or in unsuitable housing. These options are unacceptable, but without 40B, we will not be able to expand supply at anywhere close to where the demand will lead. 

And that’s of concern for all of us, as we are reminded by Abraham Joshua Heschel: “A test of a people is how it behaves toward the old.”

We strongly urge everyone to vote NO on Question 2. 

As always, I welcome comments.  Click here to send me an email.

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