Affordable housing reality check

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Opponents are often vocal when a 40B development, or affordable housing, comes to their neighborhood. Many of these opponents go to great lengths to organize their communities against such development, campaigning at meetings and hearings, and through social media.

Although there are numerous zoning changes that cities and towns can implement to promote housing affordability, opponents often make changes politically unfeasible. And even those who are proponents of affordable housing in concept often maintain a “not-in-my-backyard” philosophy (NIMBYism).

Individuals cannot be fully blamed for their reticence in accepting economically integrated housing. In reality, a lot of affordable housing has been poorly designed and managed, such as large housing towers of the 1960s and ’70s that became areas of increased crime.

Today, however, many of the fears about affordable housing development are not grounded in reality.

Gateway cities like Worcester can benefit significantly from tax incentives attached to affordable-based developments. Such projects can be hubs of economic and social growth.

When done well, these developments promote walkability, public safety, education and economic development, while reducing reliance on automobiles and reducing expenses for families. All the while, these developments provide housing to populations with varying levels of vulnerability to homelessness.

While opponents cite many reasons for their opposition these arguments tend to ignore the alternative prospect of increased homelessness and strain on families who cannot afford adequate housing.

Who opposes affordable housing development?

By and large, the opponents of affordable development are neighbors.

In fact, in one area study, 73 percent of opponents of affordable housing were either unorganized residents or organized resident groups.

While opponents cite many reasons for their opposition, as outlined below, these arguments tend to ignore the alternative prospect of increased homelessness and strain on families who cannot afford adequate housing.

An absence of affordable housing, however, results in tangibly negative outcomes such as food insecurity, homelessness, poor school performance among children, and increased crime. The questions held by opponents to affordable housing development need to be examined closely to ensure that we can effectuate housing affordability without compromising the integrity of communities.

Safety and crime |  A common assumption is that affordable housing leads to increased crime.

In fact, when affordable housing is placed in previously blighted areas, more integrated and cohesive communities actually improve safety. By way of example, the Columbia Point neighborhood in Dorchester, in the 1960s and ’70s, was anecdotally so dangerous that ambulances would not travel into the neighborhood.

Today, known as Harbor Point, approximately one-third of the community is affordable units, integrated with market-rate units. Design changes, such as an increase of green and recreation areas, as well as social services and private policing, have vastly improved the safety of the affordable community.

While a single-family home might provide a larger tax base over the long term, large lots and homes in less dense areas also require more resources from municipalities.

Tax burdens |  There is concern that affordable housing developments do not grow the tax base for municipalities to the same degree as single-family homes.

In response to this concern, Massachusetts Chapter 40R provides cash bonuses to municipalities for developing dense, affordable units in favor of single family homes. These cash bonuses are paid by the Department of Housing and Community Development, and are for the creation of a 40R zoning district itself and then for the construction of units.

While a single-family home might provide a larger tax base over the long term, large lots and homes in less dense areas also require more resources from municipalities, such as more roads and road maintenance.

This economic argument fails to take into account the economic opportunities, workplace advancement, and increased spending power that are conferred on previously poorer populations when given access to affordable housing. These economic advances among poorer groups strengthen the economic fabric of cities.

School impacts |  To be sure, trends show that poorer students tend to do worse in school than wealthier counterparts.

Because of this data, many believe that the inclusion of affordable housing in their community will require increased funds from taxes to bring poorer students up to speed. This thought process fails to consider that proper affordable housing might actually improve outcomes among poorer students, since their poorer performance in school is likely caused by environmental factors such as inadequate housing rather than some inherent personal trait linked to wealth.

Moreover, Massachusetts Chapter 40S provides funding to municipalities to cover any calculated increase in education costs as a result of student-aged children moving into affordable housing districts.

Affordable housing developments, by contrast, often preserve open space, develop areas densely and promote walkability.

Environmental impacts |  Many oppose affordable housing development by citing environmental concerns.

This argument is nonsensical given that larger market rate developments, especially single-family developments, use more land surface area and contribute to urban sprawl. The negative consequences of sprawl include extreme environmental degradation from the creation of increased impermeable surfaces, the need for increased reliance on vehicles, and the use of increased amounts of building material. These negative outcomes can lead to interruptions of the water cycle that contribute to flooding and drought in other regions of the country.

Affordable housing developments, by contrast, often preserve open space, develop areas densely and promote walkability. Mixed-use affordable housing developments are particularly beneficial to the environment because residents have less need to travel for work or to obtain goods and services.

At the same time, these “eyes on the street” businesses contribute to public safety and stabilize areas economically by providing jobs and independent investment.

“Those people: the homeless, the welfare crowd” |  Of course, many opponents to affordable housing simply do not want to live near people whom they consider to be undesirable members of society.

Only education and better social services can remedy this cultural discrepancy. In the meantime, it is instructive to note that, in Worcester, a single person making $46,100 per year or less is eligible for an affordable housing unit. This amount increases to $65,800 for a family of four.

Conclusions

The city of Worcester should continue to promote affordable housing development.

Many times, redevelopment of blighted areas is impossible without the work of community development corporations or other developers who are best able to utilize state and federal funding incentives. These programs often have cash benefits for the city.

Most importantly, these developments provide sustainable and equitable housing for populations requiring housing assistance.

Some argue that affordable housing developments will present increased costs to the city over the long term. But if we do not promote affordable housing in place of blighted areas and cyclical poverty in the city of Worcester, we will never know the many economic, environmental and social benefits that come with a well-housed population.

Alex Mooradian is an attorney with the city firm, Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski.

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