Cardinal Bernard Law spoke out against challenges to the state’s so-called anti-snob zoning law last week at the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp.’s annual meeting in Boston.

With an unprecedented two dozen proposals to change Massachusetts’ so-called anti-snob zoning law on the agenda for the current legislative session, religious leaders and affordable housing advocates have gone on the offensive, vowing to fight to keep the law intact.

The conflict between advocates looking for ways to address the region’s housing crisis and suburban-based politicians came to a head last week when Cardinal Bernard Law – head of the Archdiocese of Boston, and a longtime advocate of affordable housing programs who carries significant political influence – addressed the issue at the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp.’s annual meeting in Boston.

Last year, Law, along with the Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, released a study saying 78,300 new housing units are needed in the Boston area over the next five years. But at current production levels, only 42,300 units will be produced, meaning an additional 36,000 units – half of which would be designated affordable – will have to be built.

Since that report was released, cities like Boston and Cambridge have committed additional resources to addressing housing needs, and Gov. Paul Cellucci has filed broad-based legislation aimed at increasing the housing supply.

But, Law said, those efforts would be countered by a weakening of the anti-snob zoning law, aka Chapter 40B. The law allows a developer to appeal to the state Housing Appeals Committee if a local zoning board of appeals has rejected his or her plans for a residential project. If the board determines that the community in question has not met a goal of having 10 percent of its residential units deemed affordable to low- and moderate-income residents, and if the proposed project contains a minimum percentage of affordable units, it may supercede the ZBA decision and grant a comprehensive permit that allows the project to be constructed.

While the law has been around for more than 30 years, challenges are appearing this year because a recent surge in suburban 40B developments is sparking new concern from lawmakers, Law said.

“If we are ever going to see a new housing paradigm in Greater Boston, however, it is going to depend on the ability of our legislators and community leaders to base policy decisions on factual information, common sense and shared goals,” Law said in a speech at the MHIC’s annual meeting. “There is little question that the ingredients for trouble are present.

“The present surge of 40B legislative activity is caused by the number of comprehensive permits, 5,764 units, presently under construction for Hingham, Walpole, Bedford, Billerica, Methuen, Georgetown, Abington, Taunton, Andover and Woburn,” Law said. “Some of these are a cause for concern, but none are a cause for panic.”

If communities begin excluding certain people through restriction on development of affordable units, the economy will suffer, Law said.

“When middle- and lower-income workers are priced out of the housing market, the essential workforce has no place to live and the economy inevitably falters,” he said. “To be inclusive is to be practical, and it is to recognize the social significance of what Howard Husock calls the ‘ladder of housing opportunities.’

“Communities that do not participate in a regional plan of inclusion and fairness are an obstruction to both human development and economic growth. When all segments of civil society and government accept the reality of our interdependence as a region, then we shall succeed. If, however, we balkanize our region, then we will all suffer the consequences in economic and social terms.”

Large Impact
Law’s outspokenness on the issues comes as a shot in the arm for housing advocates, who are suiting up to battle the 40B challenges on Beacon Hill.

“This seems to be the season to take a shot at 40B,” said Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance. “The cardinal has been a strong supporter of making sure all communities take seriously the responsibility to house low- and moderate-income families.

“[The 40B challenges] come at a time when we can least afford to close communities,” he said. “We need to build 36,000 additional units. If communities shut their doors again, that will be next to impossible.”

“There’s an increase in proposals this year because there are a lot of communities that haven’t had to face [Chapter 40B] in a long time, and now we’re seeing projects in those communities,” said Aaron Gornstein, executive director of the Citizens Housing and Planning Association. “There’s also a spotlight on larger projects” he said, adding that nine or 10 projects in the region exceed 400 residential units. “They’re having a large impact on small communities.”

Some proposals in front of the Legislature aim to reduce the 10 percent affordability goal to a lower number, while other bills seek to expand the definition of what can be counted toward the 10 percent goal to include units like prison beds, Section 8 units and manufactured housing.

“The law has always been controversial, but we feel it needs to remain intact, and that the 10 percent goal needs to remain intact,” Gornstein said. “The principle [of Chapter 40B] should be maintained especially in today’s housing climate.”

He said one of the most viable solutions to the housing crunch is the development of more multifamily housing. “It’s unfortunate that local zoning laws in many communities prohibit the development of multifamily housing,” Gornstein said. “If they allowed it, we wouldn’t need 40B. But they don’t, and the only way we see it getting built is with 40B.”

Both Gornstein and Callahan admit there are instances where the comprehensive permit system is abused by developers, but both said the solution to that problem does not lie in weakening the law.

“We ought to prevent abuse in the future. I’m not defending anyone who threatens to use 40B,” Gornstein said. “Some market rate developers have no interest in affordable housing, and only after they’re rejected [by the ZBA] do they come back with an affordable component. [Chapter 40B] should never be used that way.”

“There are cases where developers try to abuse the law,” Callahan said. “But we feel there are tools communities can use to counteract that. Part of the challenge is putting those tools in the communities’ hands.”

MAHA, CHAPA and a host of other nonprofit housing groups have banded together under the name Building Blocks, Callahan said, and have collectively taken their agenda to the State House. Response from many politicians has been positive, he said.

“With the combination of [Law], the number of affordable housing groups and the governor saying he’ll veto a change in 40B, I think we’ll be OK,” Callahan said. “In general, both the House speaker and Senate president have been advocates of 40B. They feel that affordable housing shouldn’t just be in Chelsea or Mattapan, but in places like Dover in Weston.

“It’s a little to early to tell, but I would hope with the [legislative] leadership, the cardinal and the governor coming out so early on this, I hope it would weigh against the challenges … I think we’ll prevail, but this is the most serious challenge in 30 years.”

The recent challenges to Chapter 40B are not the first instance where the archdiocese has stepped in to fight for affordable housing, Law said. Challenges involving the archdiocese and anti-snob zoning date back to the earliest days of the statute.

“During the early ’70s, the experience of the Planning Office for Urban Affairs of the Archdiocese was the foundation of case law for Chapter 40B,” Law said. “In the years immediately following the passage of 40B, the archdiocese took multiple trips to the Supreme Court in order to win the right to build superior-quality, mixed-income, racially-integrated housing in suburban towns like Beverly, Scituate, Lexington and North Andover.”

Law, Housing Advocates Back Anti-Snob Zoning

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min