Bringing the affordable housing concerns of urban and suburban communities to the table is a little like asking the Hatfields and McCoys to break bread together ߝ you don’t want to do it unless you enjoy seeing food fly. Yet a recent breakfast forum sponsored by UMass Lowell’s Center for Family, Work and Community (CFWC) highlighted some innovative approaches that bridge the divide.
As a followup to its report, “Meeting Lowell’s Housing Needs: A Comprehensive Look,” the Center gathered about 35 leaders in Lowell and neighboring communities to discuss their experiences with the lack of affordable housing and to discuss action steps for concerned residents to take in the days and weeks ahead.
According to Senator Steven C. Panagiotakos, chair of the Senate’s Housing Committee, Lowell is losing affordable rental units by the thousands under the so-called “expiring use” clause of federal housing policy that allows landlords to opt out of the federal subsidy program and offer the units at the market rate. At the same time, according to the report, the cost of a single-family home in Lowell climbing 85 percent to $159,900 from 1995 to 2001, while condominium prices jumped 397 percent in the same period. Yet Lowell alone can do little to solve the problem. “There simply is no land in Lowell,” said Panagiotakos, pointing out that while Lowell already has its fair share of affordable housing stock, many of the surrounding towns do not.
Rich LeMoine, UMass Lowell’s assistant director of environmental health and safety and the chair of Tyngsboro’s Housing Authority pointed out that in the past decade, Tyngsboro has experienced 28 percent growth in housing, the highest in the region. And this year alone, the town is faced with developers looking to add approximately 500 housing units under the state’s 40B affordable housing law. “Tynsgboro hasn’t planned for affordable housing,” said LeMoine. Because only three percent of the town’s housing stock is what the state deems affordable, developers can by-pass local zoning laws under 40B. The town now has undertaken a planning process to stagger introduction of the new housing so the growth can be accommodated.
One way to address the affordable housing crisis if for cities and towns to work together to fund developments themselves, said Jim Canavan of Community Teamwork, Inc. He credited Panagiotakos for helping establish a regional development organization, which is now up and running.
A representative of the Merrimack Valley Partnership, a labor union and clergy coalition working to better the quality of life in the region, said a home rule petition that would provide about 500 affordable units is stuck in the House Rules Committee. He encouraged the audience to call the committee.
Panagiatakos pointed out that an infusion of capital funding is needed to rehabilitate old units and build new ones. That could start immediately if a Housing Bond Bill, stuck in conference committee, were passed into law. He said that suburban representatives were holding up the final legislation pending efforts to change the 40B laws. He encouraged the audience to contact House members and ask them to move the housing bond bill to the House floor.
Linda Silka, co-director of the CFWC, wrapped up the meeting by encouraging everyone in the audience to take one action step. “What are you going to do about housing?” she prodded.