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I went to an event to kick off the campaign to elect Andreae Downs to the City Council yesterday.  After her remarks she opened the floor to questions from the audience.

The first question came from housing advocate, and director of housing non-profit CAN-DO, Josephine McNeil.  She asked (my paraphrasing) “the administration in Washington has been clear about their intention to cut the HUD (dept of Housing and Urban Development) funding by $8 billion and to completely eliminate the entire CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) program.  What would be your plan for the city’s affordable housing efforts, in the wake of these drastic cuts in federal housing funds.”

This was the first I’ve heard  of this – shame on me.  For any one with any interest in affordable housing or development issues in general in Newton, that is hugely disturbing news.

When it comes to affordable housing in Newton there really are only two significant ways it gets funded – the state’s 40B program, and through HUD/CDBG funding.

The 40B program funds new affordable housing by trading regulatory concessions for building affordable units.  In essence the developers of large 40 B projects, fund the new construction of affordable units and in return the state waives most of the local zoning control of their project.  While this approach has definitely worked over the years it has been a continual source of frustration and tension here in Newton and elsewhere.  When a big 40B project gets proposed, local residents and their elected officials have very little say in what gets built.

The one thing that both the housing advocates and opponents of large 40B projects seem to be in agreement about is that the alternative approach to building smaller affordable housing, exemplified by CAN-DO is important too.

Virtually every affordable housing initiative in the city depends on HUD/CDBG funding.  When local non-profits build housing units, it is always in part by leveraging HUD/CDBG funding and often 40B as wells.   The city’s existing public housing (Newton Housing) depends on HUD funding for its continued operation.  The city’s planning department is even partially funded by HUD/CDBG funds.  Much of the official City of Newton’s Housing Strategy depends directly and indirectly on the HUD/CDBG funding.

Josephine Mc’Neil’s question yesterday shined a much needed light on an impending slow-motion affordable housing train wreck that may be happening soon.   Josephine McNeil may be officially retiring but  clearly she’s not ready to stop working/worrying about housing issues in Newton.

What’s the answer?  Damned if I know.  Clearly all efforts should be made to prevent the slashing of the federal housing budget.  That’s a tough one since virtually our entire elected national delegation is already in that camp, so there are none of our elected reps who need convincing.

If the budget does get slashed, how will the city cope?  Contingency planning really should begin now.  I think its a great public service that Ms McNeil is introducing that as an issue in this year’s campaign.  It sounds like an issue that all our elected representatives and their challengers should begin grappling with sooner rather than later.