Last night, the Planning Board and Board of Selectmen endorsed the five year plan to increase affordable housing options in Southborough. One of the main goals of the plan is “safe harbor” protection from undesirable 40B projects. But the plan also defines the Town’s goals for diversifying housing and lays out strategies to achieve them.
The 2020-2025 Housing Production Plan has a slew of recommendations, including changes to zoning bylaws, financial policies to reduce financial tax burdens for seniors, and subsidies to facilitate desirable projects. On Monday night, report author, consultant Roberta Cameron, explained to the boards that their endorsement isn’t a firm commitment to carry all rcommendations through.
Still, given that members from both boards lauded the plan, it’s reasonable to expect to see some strategies pop up in future Town Meeting Articles or even budget discussions. So, I’m sharing highlights.
But first. . .
In support of recommended policy and zoning changes, the report included constructive criticsm. Prior to Planning’s vote, member Meme Lutrell had issues with one of those comments. She questioned a statement under Housing Inventory:
Very little housing has been constructed in the past century that offers alternatives to high end single-family homeownership. This is the result of a deliberate effort to homogenize development through local zoning.
Consultant Courtney Starling defended that it referred to zoning requirements over time that required more land to build less. That has a tendency to lead to larger single family homes and homogenization. She acknowledged that there had been some efforts in regulations to diversify. But issues with regulations meant that they were ineffective in practice. She also pointed to the 66% of Town Meeting voters required to have enacted zoning changes, referring to some anti-development intent.
Lutrell rebutted that the effect of zoning doesn’t necessarily reflect the intent. Planning Chair Don Morris chimed in that he had passed on similar comments. But, he chose to focus on the plan’s present and future, rather than the history. Planning unanimously endorsed the plan.
After reviewing a state statute pointed to by Selectman Marty Healey, all agreed to request the Conservation Commission’s approval. That will happen before selectmen forward the plan to DHCD (the Mass Department of Housing and Community Development). With that plan clarified, selectmen adopted the plan 4-0.
The plan was put together by consultants Community Opportunities Group, Inc. working with SHOPC (Southborough Housing Opportunities Partnership Comittee). Groundwork included a 2020 community survey (with 250 responses), interviewed stakeholders throughout the community, and held a Senior Housing Needs forum in September 2015 (following up on the 2015-2020 plan adopted that February).
You can read the full plan here.
Rate of Affordable Housing Creation
Towards the end of the document (page 54), consultants describe the rate of deed-restricted affordable housing production needed to maintain “safe harbor” from unwanted 40B developments. It points out that if a controversial planned 40B project fails to overcome appeals, it will have a significant impact:
In order to ensure “safe harbor” in the short term, the Town needs to add 17-18 units to its SHI on an annual basis.
The Town has already approved a Comprehensive Permit for a multifamily development at Park Central, which would create 180 rental apartments. Currently under appeal, if this development moves forward it will bring the Town above the minimum 40B threshold for the foreseeable future. . . Without the Park Central project, the Town would likely need to identify alternative sites where a similar type of development would be appropriate in order to meet the Town’s affordable housing needs under Chapter 40B.
Again, the 40B protection isn’t the only thing Town officials are trying to achieve. The Exeutive Summary introduction highlights the community’s need for more affordable housing:
Nearly 900 of Southborough’s roughly 3,400 households today are cost-burdened (paying more than 30% of their income on housing). This includes 1/2 of Southborough’s renters and 1/4 of homeowners. Young adults (under age 35) have the highest rate of housing cost burden, while seniors are also disproportionately cost-burdened as many live on fixed-incomes.
Southborough’s Housing Goals
The summary also defines the Town’s six goals:
1. Provide housing options that attract families and enable older adults to remain in Southborough as their needs change
2. Reinforce Southborough’s economic goals by supporting local businesses through the provision of expanded housing choices that serves a diverse local workforce
3. Encourage alternative housing styles to single-family homes, such as townhouses, duplexes, and small apartment buildings in contextually appropriate locations to provide residents with a wider range of housing options
4. Maintain Southborough’s character by supporting the design of housing development that is compatible with and complementary to the Town’s architectural character and wooded landscapes.
5. Minimize impacts of new development on priority areas for open space, conservation, and natural resource protection purposes
6. Maintain and improve the condition of the Town’s housing stock and encourage high quality new construction
Below are key excerpts from four overarching strategies that include several recommended zoning changes.
1. Enhance local capacity to plan, advocate for, develop, and manage affordable housing units.
Strengthen and Expand Partnerships
several successful non-profit developers seek opportunities to develop affordable housing in suburban communities throughout Massachusetts and beyond, such as Habitat for Humanity, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, Inc. (NOAH), The Community Builders (TCB), and SMOC. Compared with for-profit developers, non-profit housing organizations are generally able to provide a larger percentage of affordable units as well as more deeply affordable units, having access to a variety of housing subsidies.
Secure Funding to Support Affordable Housing
The Town may be able to increase the potential for successful partnerships through providing direct subsidies to create affordable housing. . . some communities choose to leverage housing funds to provide local matches for grants offered through the Commonwealth; MassWorks grants, for example, are more competitive with a local match and can be used to improve local infrastructure (including sewer, water, and complete streets improvements) to facilitate the development of affordable housing (among other land uses). . . Local funding could also be used to facilitate the conversion of existing homes to deed-restricted affordable units, to provide first-time homeownership programs, or other supportive services.
Having adopted the Community Preservation Act and established an Affordable Housing Trust, the Town has taken concrete steps to facilitate the funding of affordable housing initiatives such as these. However, the Trust has been largely inactive toward creating new affordable housing for several years, while the Community Preservation Committee has been holding funds earmarked for affordable housing in reserve.18 Re-activating the Housing Trust could help to put these resources to work.
The Town can encourage the development of affordable housing consistent with local land use goals by developing guidelines that articulate the Town’s preferences and priorities. Whether projects are developed under Chapter 40B or conventional zoning, proactively communicating what development outcomes the Town is looking for can enable a smoother permitting process by providing developers with guidance on what types housing and in which locations would be preferred.
Educate/Communicate with the Public
It is important for the public to be well informed about local housing needs, initiatives and challenges.
2. Identify sites for creation of affordable housing through new development, redevelopment, or preservation.
3. Update zoning to create opportunities for development of affordable housing, and to encourage diversity in housing options.
dimensional regulations, use restrictions, inclusionary requirements, and environmental regulations, in addition to high land and materials costs make it difficult to build diverse types of units. Fine-tuning the regulations pertaining to diverse forms of housing would facilitate more opportunities for providing needed housing alternatives, to accommodate more modest housing, or for walkable village character.
- Strengthen inclusionary requirements.
Should the town be willing to reconsider the mandate that 1/3 of the units be single-family homes (which drive cost and inefficient land use), the preclusion against apartment buildings (with more than four units or common entrances) to allow for small-scale multi-family buildings built at a pedestrian-friendly village scale, and relaxing the base density requirements in certain zoning districts, or any combination of actions thereof, the quality and number of affordable units produced could be increased. . .
Removing the local preference mandate and restrictions precluding Low-and Extremely Low-Income households would be advisable.
- Advance local historic preservation and housing objectives by providing a feasible permitting vehicle to allow for the Adaptive Reuse of Historic Structures for residential purposes.
while an existing lot and structure may be able to support multi-family use [under the Adaptive Reuse bylaw] given its size and configuration; in the majority of the town, there is a limit of one unit per acre, and as many of these structures are in older areas of town, typically located on smaller lots, the ability to actually utilize the bylaw to create any sort of meaningful project is limited at best. This issue could most easily be addressed by amending the bylaw to address maximum density based on the existing structure and septic capacity, rather than lot size. . . Modifying the bylaws to allow for this practice to continue once again would allow for the organic integration of new multifamily housing (albeit in old buildings) that has traditionally existed throughout the town, but can longer be built per regulation.
- Revise Business Village zoning regulations to provide for Mixed-Use buildings including residential uses.
- Remove barriers for the provision of true Senior Housing and provide greater ability to create “lifecycle” housing units.
Currently the regulations limit the number of household occupants – precluding roommates, caretakers, grandchildren, or other household members that could extend independent living. Such limitations should be removed. Further, the regulations encourage larger single-family homes and duplexes, but do not address nor incentivize accessible units, nor do they authorize apartment buildings that may offer elevators, public common areas, and covered hallways that allow for socializing and mobility, even in the winter. The physical design of buildings and neighborhoods matter, and some thought needs to be given to serving the needs of more advanced seniors. . .
while there might be a rationale to limit the overall number of senior (55+) housing units. . . a 7% limit is likely too severe when population projections indicate that one third of Southborough households will be over 65 years of age by 2030. Similarly, a 5% limit on accessory apartments is unenforceable as there is no record of how many of these units have been constructed since 1979.
- Ensure that parking requirements are commensurate with the size and type of use.
The Town’s current requirement of three spaces per unit with three or more bedrooms and two spaces per unit with one or two bedrooms is very high. . . the Town could consider reducing the parking requirements to more commonly used standards that reflect usage and market demand, or adopting a waiver mechanism for some portion of required parking if supported by a Transportation Demand Management Plan.
4. Assist Southborough residents to obtain or maintain housing that they can afford.
Reduce the Property Tax Burden for low income seniors.
While the amount of the tax abatement is small compared with property tax bills, the Senior Tax Deferral (Clause 41A) can enable seniors to defer up to 100% of their property tax payment until the property is sold or the applicant dies. . . Southborough currently allows participants with incomes up to $40,000 to defer their taxes at a 4% interest rate. As of 2020, several higher-cost communities have set income limits above $80,000 for tax deferral, with interest rates as low as 2%. . .
amending the zoning to create opportunities for improved commercial development or more diverse housing styles can help to offset the tax burden on single-family residences.
Assist first time homebuyers to overcome cost barriers.
With funding through the Housing Trust, down-payment assistance could be provided to income-qualified households. Alternatively, the Town could also establish a “buydown” program, where the Trust subsidizes the cost to purchase a house for an income-qualified buyer in exchange for obtaining a long-term or permanent affordability deed restriction.