Reflecting on my experiences arising from hundreds (and I mean “hundreds”)of public hearings involving the permitting of affordable housing across most of eastern Massachusetts (at least 150 communities), one might think I would have a hard time remembering the “early” days of Chapter 40B compared to today, but it is far easier than one would think – because the arguments against mixed income housing, or rental housing, or higher density housing than allowed by zoning, have not changed. The audiences back in 1970 when I followed the Newton debates over the attempts to build scattered site affordable housing by a local non-profit organization started by the local churches and synagogues (Newton Community Development Foundation), as Chapter 40B, having just been passed by the legislature the previous year, was the subject of my Master’s thesis for my City Planning degree at MIT.
I recently reread my thesis and read the arguments used by those in opposition, which I heard first-hand, as follows:
We don’t want outsiders moving in, including welfare cases and Blacks from Boston
Multi-family housing is not in keeping with the character of the City
Subsidized housing is cheaply built and a blighting influence in and of itself
The housing will overburden the school system and lower educational standards
Residents would not “pay their own way” and taxes would increase
Traffic congestion would result
Property values in the surrounding area would decrease because of the housing
Precious open space would be lost
The developer would make a lot of money and were not to be trusted
And so here we are, 48 years later, and I am still involved in public hearings where the citizenry of Massachusetts, the most educated state in the nation, are acting like they did in 1970. Somehow 48 years of history, including a wide range of mixed income developments up and operating for years, providing real time data and information which would benefit any of these discussions, are ignored in the anti-housing commentary. The current arguments, now articulated, or shouted, by the children and perhaps grandchildren of those people I listened to and later argued with in the 70’s and 80’s are the same, with some variations and with some new ones as well, such as:
There will be kids running naked through the property, like in West Virginia
Those people will see our children swimming in the pool
Those people may jump off their roof (46 ft high) into our pool since the building is so close
I have heard over the years an endless variety of ways of people have couched their fears and hostilities about density, newcomers, lower income households etc. which I find is a sad commentary on our educational system, our understanding of the basic lessons in civics and the “common good” and how society benefits when all segments work together. That is discouraging enough, but in addition, there is exhibited such a constant misunderstanding of, and/or misapplication of, facts about property taxes, property values, school costs, municipal finance, household incomes, etc. and an even more disheartening refusal to do any real research or discovery of these facts before boldly making assertions in a public setting. I do not say this with an advocacy point of view (which I have) but from listening to countless hours of these diatribes for so long in so many places.
Yet, after the housing is built and sold or operated for a number of years, the public discourse about what negative impacts have resulted from such housing or how the character of their community has suffered is almost non-existent. But when the next neighborhood group, who never heard these arguments, or attended any meetings, is now confronted with a housing proposal, the dynamic gets repeated, over and over, like a broken loop with no learning transmitted across imagined boundaries and no “progress” in the intellectual debate of the need for housing versus their individual rights, however they characterize them.
The need for adequate and affordable housing is a national issue, a state issue and a metropolitan issue but it is fought at the most local of levels – the street where I live – and never seemingly rises to the level it needs to be on to make it one of the most important social issues in this country. That is precisely why laws like 40B and fair housing laws and anti-discrimination laws are necessary to bring focus to the larger issues at play – and why the title of my thesis back in 1971 is still appropriate: “Subsidized Housing in the Suburbs: Legislation or Litigation?”