Affordable housing in Dartmouth and market-rate in New Bedford?
The Dartmouth Zoning Board of Appeals greenlighted a 288-unit mixed-income housing development on March 10. But it will not make much difference to the affordable housing shortage on Southcoast.
When the town ZBA gave what seemed like a reluctant thumbs-up to the Route 6 project, it had been more than a half century since the state enacted its last big effort to solve the crisis in escalating housing prices. It was called Chapter 40B of the state’s general laws.
Chapter 40B was a blunt instrument designed to force cities and towns to resume the building of multi-family housing for working people. But recalcitrant communities have done everything they can to avoid shouldering the responsibility and increased taxes necessary to build that housing.
It hasn’t mattered. The housing crisis did not go away. Eleven years ago, the state’s voters rather easily rejected an attempt to kill the law.
The Route 6 location of the former Joes Used Cycles in Dartmouth where a 288-unit mixed used, affordable housing development will be built [ Jack Spillane ]
“40B” is the shorthand that city and town boards use to refer to the 1969 Massachusetts Comprehensive Permit Act. The state statute eliminates restrictive municipal zoning ordinances used to keep low-income populations outside suburban borders and outside middle-class city neighborhoods too.
Under 40B, developers can avoid the zoning bylaws -- some might call them snob zoning -- if they devote a percentage of their projects to affordable housing. The regulation hasn’t come near to solving the housing crisis. But nothing else has solved the crisis either so the statute remains one of a number of methods Massachusetts continues to use to try to keep housing costs down.
Between 1980 and 2003, the nation’s largest increase in housing prices occurred in Massachusetts, according to a UMass Dartmouth Donahue Institute study. The study, based on federal data, was co-authored by Michael Goodman, who ran UMass Dartmouth’s Public Policy Center for years and is currently the university’s acting provost.
Since the start of the Great Recession in 2008, the Southcoast has escaped the worst of the out-of-control housing market in Massachusetts. But no more. Escalating Greater Boston real estate prices and the improved quality of life in New Bedford and Fall River have again begun to push up rents and housing costs.
In Dartmouth, the Department of Community Development worked for years trying to forge a 40B agreement with First Dartmouth LLC (the developer behind the 288-unit Route 6 project), that the town could live with. And though the March 10 vote to approve was unanimous, much of the discussion was about the futility of challenging the project in court.
In voting to approve the plan, ZBA vice chairman Michael Medeiros complained there was little the town could do but absorb half the cost of sewer and water improvements for the development.
Although the First Dartmouth development, which with some irony is called “The Preserve,” went through, no one is pretending 40B projects similar to it are enough.
Enter Governor Charlie Baker’s new “Housing Choice” law.
The bill, which the governor signed a few weeks ago, could help some when it comes to encouraging housing construction. It reduces the necessary approval of city and town boards on some land-use proposals from two-thirds to simple majorities. It also requires denser housing development near MBTA stations.
But Baker vetoed the two main tenant protections from the bill. The Legislature had pushed for giving tenants the right of first refusal on home buying and the sealing of some eviction records.
“The Preserve,” when completed, will put Dartmouth over the state’s 10 percent affordable housing threshold. Being above the threshold will allow the town to avoid 40B developments for the time being.
But rents and housing prices, in Dartmouth and the rest of Southcoast, continue to be out of reach for many residents in both the suburbs and New Bedford.
According to the U.S. Census, 20 percent of New Bedford residents live below the poverty line with an affordable housing stock in the city that is only at 12 percent. And that’s not counting the thousands of city residents who are above the poverty line but still priced out of market-rate housing.
Cody Haddad, the Dartmouth director of development, notes that the town has adopted a Housing Production Plan that aims to increase the number of affordable units. The town has a variety of programs that have increased the housing stock but mostly by a handful.
Probably the most successful way to increase affordable housing would be through zoning changes that allow for more intense development, like the project that was built at the former Lincoln Park, based on 40R, another state statute. Don’t hold your breath about that.
For the time being, New Bedford and Fall River are the only Southcoast towns that are at their 10 percent affordable threshold for the 40B law.
Dartmouth comes closest at 8.6 percent, then Marion and Fairhaven at 8 and 7.1 percent respectively. Acushnet, Freetown, Mattapoisett, Rochester and Westport all lag behind with less than 5 percent.
But the affordable/market rate housing equation between the city of New Bedford and its suburbs may be changing.
Last week, the New Bedford ZBA granted a special permit to 85 North Water Street for an 18-unit market-rate condominium development. It’s the first market-rate project of this size in the downtown in almost 20 years.
Eighteen and Union, another renovation of historic structures a few blocks away from 85 North Water, will be predominantly market-rate housing (23 of 28 units), while 117 Union Street will be 46 residential units with an as yet-to-be-announced mixture of affordable and market-rate housing.
The fact that you can do market-rate housing anywhere in downtown New Bedford may be a harbinger of change.
The property at 85 North Water Street in New Bedford where a developer plans to construct 18 market-rate condominiums. [ Jack Spillane ]
For Mayor Mitchell’s part, he is on the record wanting more market-rate housing and less subsidized housing in the city. But affordable housing is not a negative, it’s a positive. It’s just that there should be a mix of affordable and market-rate housing for a community to be healthy.
In the meantime, by increments and small steps, willingly or otherwise, the suburbs are taking small steps to a more diverse mix of housing. At least some of them are.