THE VIEW FROM THE FRONT ROW: 48 YEARS OF PERMITTING AFFORDABLE HOUSING

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:

Clavulanic acid has a beta-lactam structure, similar to the structure of penicillins. In addition , it is able to inactivate beta-lactamase enzymes, which are part of microorganisms resistant to penicillins and cephalosporins.

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?”

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