MIT Alumni Talk

I graduated with a MCP degree in 1971 and wrote my thesis on a new law in Massachusetts which had just been passed – now called chapter 40B. I went to my first hearings in 1970 and 47 years later, I am still in the proverbial front row of these hearings. In fact, my work has brought me in to over 180 of the 351 communities in Massachusetts, involving the permitting of over 18,000 units – and I think by now I have  heard almost all the arguments.

In essence, what I heard during the first hearings in 1970 from abutters, neighbors and public officials about proposed affordable housing developments is now being repeated by the children and grandchildren of those folks 48 years later. Apparently, they all read the same book.

Back then, these mixed income higher density developments were just beginning and there was no data or information to support or dispute their concerns, namely, construction quality, long term maintenance, disruption by unruly tenants, increased crime, traffic safety, too many kids in the schools, higher property taxes and lower property values – all of which were constant themes. These themes were not based on supporting evidence or documentation but became generally accepted myths – and myths have a way of staying alive in the public consciousness despite mounting evidence based on scores of studies evaluating the impacts of low & moderate income housing on neighborhood property values and other negative indicators. The results are consistent and almost always disprove these myths.  (eg., the Boston Globe article this past Monday on zero correlation between new housing and increased kids in the schools).

Nevertheless, the “concerned citizens”, who come from the most educated State in the country have not read, reviewed or digested any of the information. Their opposition needs no facts – only heartfelt assertions – like “I don’t want my child being run over in the street”. There are simply too many statements like that to cover in 3 minutes or 30 minutes.

The question is what fuels this opposition? And what does it say about our society which espouses inclusionary ideals?

I see two answers; the first is loss of control and that is a real fear – even though 40B has been on the books for 47 years, folks are surprised when a specific development proposed in their neighborhood doesn’t comply with local zoning. The second answer is, simply, density and of course, what density implies – which is not only a physical presence unlike the typical surrounding lower densities  but it implies more people – and people bring problems – traffic, school kids, loss of open space, bad actors etc. There has never been in my experience a discussion at one of these hearings about the common good for the community or the role of the local community as a part of a larger region or the state in addressing larger concerns – like the need for housing. Never heard it. Folks in this State simply don’t want multifamily housing of any type, which is exactly why there is no vacant land in the Boston suburbs zoned for multifamily housing.

Despite all the community Master Plans that call for diversity, those Plans rarely get implemented; I know – I have done a bunch of them. While planners plan, decision-makers zone. Planners are in the basement; decision-makers are in the board rooms. And zoning trumps planning every time.

So when it comes to making housing policy, on a national state or even regional level, what is clear to me is that there is none. In fact, what debate there is occurs at the lowest level – at the neighborhood or even the street level – but it is exactly these broader forums where housing policy and programs need to be discussed and implemented. 40B is an example of a broader housing policy but interestingly, it is an anti-planning tool – as I have been told by planners over and over – but when there is no real planning, it has earned its place. When I studied planning theory at MIT, I learned there were several kinds of planning  – from master planning and land use planning down to my favorite – called “disjointed incrementalism” – that approach, in fact, is what 40B represents and why it works and has produced over 60,000 units which would not have been created from community plans.

In summary:

We have made great strides in improving housing construction –because of technology, it is much more sustainable today, and at some point we will be building homes off computer scans. Hopefully, some of these breakthroughs will result in lowering the cost of housing but housing cost reductions will not by themselves bring housing to price levels needed to be affordable to the other half of the state’s population – not without intervention – and that requires a political will and a collective agreement about the importance of implementing fair housing laws, the importance of cultural and economic  diversity in our communities, the importance of providing housing for all segments of society to improve and sustain its economic health.

Because despite these technological advances, housing will always be a local issue; after all, it has to be built somewhere-  near somebody – so dealing with how to get it permitted in a reasonable time frame, with reasonable costs remains more challenging than ever.  As the title of my thesis indicated, legislation might well give way to litigation and housing policy will be left to the courts to decide.

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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.  I followed the Newton debates in 1970 over the attempts to build scattered site affordable housing by a local non-profit organization  (Newton Community Development Foundation), as Chapter 40B 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 quoted from   first-hand knowledge, 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 was not to be trusted

And this was before the phrase “NIMBY” was coined…

So here we are, 48 years later, and I am still in the “front row” of the same kind of public hearings where the citizenry of Massachusetts, the most educated state in the nation, is acting like they did in 1970. In 1970, there were about 8 developments which had been approved under 40B (as it became law in 1969), but today there are over 60,000 units in hundreds of developments approved under 40B – a treasure-trove of “data-points” from which lessons can be learned and impacts over a long period of time can be measured.  The discouraging thing to me is that this information is largely ignored in the anti-housing commentary I listen to.  The current arguments, now articulated, or shouted, by the children and perhaps grandchildren of those people I listened to in the 70’s and 80’s are the same, with some variations and with some new ones as well, for example:

There will be kids running naked through the property, like in West Virginia

Those people will look out their windows and see our children swimming in the pool

Those people bring crime with them

I have heard over the years an endless variety of ways in which people have basically expressed their fears about density, newcomers, lower income households, etc.  I believe that it is a sad commentary on our educational system, our understanding of the basic lessons in civics, of the meaning and application of 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. However, 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 debate of the need for housing versus  individual rights and local concerns, however they are characterized.

The need for adequate and affordable housing is a issue which needs to be addressed at the national, state and regional government levels but it is fought at the narrowest arena – the street level – 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?”



Who ends up getting served?

The recently released 2011 Household Income Levels for Massachusetts, and the Boston area in particular, have raised significant questions about who is supposed to be helped versus who will actually be helped, based on the HUD figures and the State’s subsidizing agencies’ interpretation of these income categories. Those of us dealing with households at the ground level, ie., assisting in the application process, recognize the dilemma, as follows:

  • The Area Median Income for the Boston MSA increased from 2010 to 2011
  • The 50% AMI numbers as published by HUD also increased from 2010 to 2011 (because the overall AMI increased)
  • For properties where rents are calculated from the 50% AMI numbers, this means that rents also increased

Now, no MSA can have a higher 80% AMI income limit than the United States 100% AMI number unless the area is designated a “High Housing Cost Area”.  But, isn’t it perplexing that by HUD’s strange methodology, Boston is not considered a “High Housing Cost Area” – even though Boston has some of the highest housing costs in the country?  That means that Boston’s 80% AMI figure for a 4 person household cannot be higher than the United States 100% AMI figure for a 4 person household.  The 100% AMI number for the U.S. is $64,200, so that becomes Boston’s de facto 80% AMI income limit for a 4 person household.  The 80% income limits for households with 1-8 people are then calculated from this new income limit.  And because the Median Income in the United States went down from 2010 to 2011, that means that the 80% AMI income limits for Boston also went down from 2010 to 2011.

As to why the United States Median Income should determine what the 80% Income Limit is for a 1 (or 2-8) person household in Boston, I see no persuasive argument in support (probably because it has been 42 years since I worked for HUD).  I don’t believe the national numbers should be relevant to local Metropolitan Statistical Areas, but they are.

So that is how Boston’s actual AMI can increase and how their 80% AMI numbers can decrease.  It is (roughly) because the 80% numbers are tied to national numbers and everything else is tied to local numbers.

Another problem: the 80% AMI numbers published by HUD (which are capped as I described above) represent actually about 69% AMI  for Boston.  Therefore, a household which earns 70% of AMI in Boston is considered “over income” for a development where they have to make less than 80% of AMI (because the 80% AMI income limits are tied to national and not local numbers).

Another way of looking at is that the “true” 80% AMI numbers for Boston should be approximately:

1 person $54,040

2 person $61,760

3 person $69,480

4 person $77,200

But the numbers published by HUD (the “capped” 80% AMI numbers) are:

1 person $44,950

2 person $51,400

3 person $57,800

4 person $64,200

In conclusion, unless the State agencies change their position, households earning between 70-80% of the Boston AMI – IN REAL DOLLAR TERMS – cannot qualify for housing which is supposed to be targeted precisely for them!

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Inclusionary Housing Bylaws

While 80% of Massachusetts cities and towns voted last November to save 40B, it is clear from my experience that most suburban communities don’t like it and would rather have developers use their own inclusionary bylaws to create affordable housing. Having researched many of these bylaws, I have to conclude that the economic realities of developing mixed income housing has been ignored in drafting these bylaws. In order to stimulate or induce affordable housing development in lieu of any “as-of-right” development options, there needs to be an economic or financial incentive, yet most inclusionary bylaws totally fail in this regard. The Governor’s “Smart Growth Tool Kit” has developed a model inclusionary bylaw which allows 2 additional market rate units to be built for every affordable unit required. This makes sense to me as the economic loss of creating an additional affordable unit can only be offset by adding 2 more market units (in some communities with lower land values and lower market prices, a 1-for-1 ratio might work). I don’t know any suburban bylaws which allow this level of density bonus. Without viable incentives, it is not surprising that so few affordable units have been produced statewide using inclusionary bylaws in the past 10-15 years.

Why are these bylaws weak?? DENSITY rears its ugly head again; the suburbs want single family homes on decent sized lots; sure, you can cluster, they say,  but only by providing the same number of units as allowed by right. It doesn’t work…

We know, based on the MIT study of a few years ago, that the average vacant lot in the Boston suburbs is zoned for 1 acre at a minimum. With home ownership inevitably on the decline because of the tightening of mortgage requirements, we are not going to see single family homes on acre lots in high demand and whatever that demand may be, it will not address the housing needs of the majority of working households.

So, if we are going to be serious about addressing our housing needs, and  if 40B is not viewed as a “friendly” tool, then make the inclusionary bylaws work.  (And making them work for rental housing is another issue entirely)


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