Southborough officials need to file an updated Housing Production Plan with the state for approval by March 22. Otherwise the Town’s “safe harbor”* period for Affordable Housing projects will expire.
On Tuesday, a consultant presented a draft to the Board of Selectmen, Planning Board and SHOPC**. The plan outlines housing needs, goals, and strategies. Those goals were somewhat in debate on Tuesday night. And board members pointed out that Town Meeting voters will likely be a roadblock for regulatory strategies.
Time pressure has been worsened by Mother Nature. Public meetings were cancelled two weeks in a row by snow storms. The boards finally managed to convene this week to review the draft.
Consultant Jennifer Goldson explained what’s required to keep Southborough’s safe harbor. The Town must produce 17 affordable units for one year of safe harbor and 34 units for two. Over five years, the plan requires adding 65 Affordable Housing units. If Woodland Meadows and Park Central projects go through, that leaves an additional 16 units.
She also highlighted an affordability gap in town housing. Comparing median real estate sales prices to median income revealed a $70,000 gap in-town and $240,000 for eastern Worcester County. (SHOPC members asked the consultant to reevaluate Southborough’s median income based on the the number of home businesses, who possibly under-report.)
The board members and audience were all in agreement about pursuing more senior housing. The consensus was there are too many residents who have lived here their entire lives but can’t afford to stay. When they look to downsize, there aren’t affordable options in town.
Goals also included: attracting families with affordable entry-level family housing, minimizing effects on open space, and supporting density compatible with “neighborhood context”.
Planning Board Member Kathy Bartolini asked Goldson to work on the language of the last goal. She didn’t see anywhere to build in town that isn’t “in context with” single family neighborhoods.
One goal shot down was to create rental units for very low income households. Selectmen John Rooney told the group that he “worked 16-18 hour days for decades to be able to afford to live in a community such as Southborough.” Very low income housing projects weren’t part of his vision for the town.
Others didn’t speak directly on the issue but supported removing language about “extremely low- and very low-income”, replacing with housing for older adults, or even removing the goal.
Board of Selectmen Chair Bill Boland told the group that keeping goals broader gives the Town more flexibility.
To reach the goals, Goldson recommended regulation changes. These include permitting mixed use buildings in village centers, improve flexible zoning, define areas for duplexes “by right”, allowing more accessory apartments, congregate living for seniors, and study creation of a 40R Smart Growth district within walking distance of the commuter rail.
Former Planning Board member Sam Stivers said that in his experience, residents object to duplexes as changing the character of the town. That was echoed by Bartolini who was concerned the plan was unrealistic. Referring to Town Meeting voters, she remarked:
It’s great, but where is the will to move 8 goals?
Bartolini explained that in developing the draft, Goldson had been working with housing advocates. She then described her past and ongoing efforts to adopt zoning bylaw changes based on the Town’s Master Plan with some similar goals.
It’s a project that has dragged on for years. She told Goldson they are now working on it piecemeal and nowhere near achieving those goals.
Bartolini also asked to find out how much developable land is left in town. She questioned if there is enough to achieve town goals for housing, economic development and Open Space.
Boland said that he didn’t believe any plan would be universally accepted by voters. But he believed they needed strategies worth striving towards.
Goldson outlined non-regulatory initiatives the Town should undertake. These included expanding Southborough owned Housing Authority stock, converting town-owned buildings (like the South Union Building) to multi-family housing, a housing rehab and improved accessibility program for low-income homeowners (including older adults). She also recommended wastewater infrastructure improvements in village center areas to promote housing and economic development.
The consultant is working with Town Planner Jennifer Burney to incorporate changes this week. The three boards will reconvene to vote on Tuesday, February 24 at 7:15 pm in the Town House Hearing Room.
*According to the plan, safe harbor under Mass Housing Authority gives the Town “more control over location, type, and pace of affordable housing development”.
**Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee