Esther Schlorholtz and Josephine McNeil, co-chairs of Uniting Citizens for Housing Affordability in Newton submitted the following column to the Newton TAB but for whatever reason, it was not published. I offered to publish it here to continue to conversation started on other threads on this site.
TWO TROUBLING BALLOT QUESTIONS
The November 4 ballot includes two non-binding local questions on which we recommend a “no” vote.
Question 5 calls for requiring approval by a majority of voters for sale of any but the smallest parcels of municipally owned real estate. Public participation required in the sale of city-owned real estate in Newton already goes beyond that required under Massachusetts law, adding to the time and cost involved for all such sales. The process for sales in Newton has proven to be sound and should not be changed to an even slower and more expensive one just because some residents are concerned that this city’s administration and elected officials may shortly sell property such as the Austin Street parking lot which those residents think should not be sold despite years of public debate and consideration.
Question 6 suggests changes to Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 40B that would fundamentally alter it, indeed mute its intent. Adopted in 1969, that statute enables housing developments that include at least a specified share of affordable units to be approved by local zoning boards of appeals without full compliance with zoning and certain other local controls unless at least 10% of the housing units in the community are counted by the state as low or moderate income housing. About 7.5% of Newton’s housing is so counted. Changing the statute as suggested in the question would allow elected officials in communities “that have taken steps to promote affordable housing at a local level” to have project-by-project “binding input regarding density, required parking, and other project characteristics,” essentially returning to the situation prior to the institution of Chapter 40B.
Chapter 40B really works. It has enabled the development of about 60,000 dwelling units statewide, half of them affordable, commonly by allowing projects to depart from the existing rules for density and other development rules which influence real estate cost. In Newton, 40B projects have produced about 1,300 housing units, nearly all of which are counted as “low or moderate income housing,” affordable to those with incomes below 80% of the area median income. If 40B did not exist, nowhere near that number of affordable units would have been created. In 2010 a Statewide Referendum to repeal 40B was soundly defeated: not a single ward or precinct in Newton voted “yes.” Over the years, both the statute and its administration have been improved and perhaps more changes could be justified. However, crippling change such as that proposed by Question 6 can’t be justified: a strong “no” is needed.
It is important that all voters in Representative Kahn’s and Balser’s districts vote on Ballot Questions 5 and 6 on November 4. There is little chance that the state legislators would adopt what the questions propose; however, a vote in opposition will carry an important message to the local elected and appointed participants in our city government.
In short, both ballot questions 5 and 6 deserve strong “no” votes.
–Esther Schlorholtz and Josephine McNeil