Suburban Brawl

The abandoned farm on Whitney Street in Sherborn should be on a wall calendar. Oxbows hang rusting in a whitewashed barn, and sunlight glints off the silver silo that once stored hay from 28 acres of overgrown fields. It's a breath of open space in a region choked by development, and a reminder of an agricultural past that most New England towns have long forgotten.

Erica Lewis thought so. Driving along back roads one day with her husband and two small children, Lewis stumbled upon this patch of quaint and fell in love. “I felt like Sherborn was 30 years behind all the towns around it,” she remembers. “I said, 'My gosh, it's so pretty.'” She and her husband bought a house across the street from the abandoned farm knowing it was already up for sale. But they were told it would either remain pristine or be transformed into a half-dozen or so tasteful, single-family homes like theirs.

The Lewises and their neighbors were shocked when the new owner of the farm revealed plans to build a condominium complex with 39 luxury and 13 affordable units. “We just felt like someone had dropped a block on our head,” says Lewis. “It wasn't in keeping with the rural character of the town.” They list the potential problems the project poses — a strain on the area's water supply, overcrowding in the schools, and more traffic on an already hazardous road. But there is little the Lewises can do: The owner is using Chapter 40B, the state's so-called “anti-snob zoning” law, which enables developers of affordable housing to override local protections in communities where less than 10 percent of existing housing is affordable.

Lewis and her neighbors are the first to tell you they aren't snobs. They believe in affordable housing: They just believe in putting it somewhere else. And that's where the problem lies. Their town is plop in the middle of a region struggling with its worst housing crisis in history, and one of the nation's most severe. Massachusetts ranks 48th among the 50 states in home affordability. By one estimate, 150,000 more families would own houses here if they were as affordable as in neighboring New Hampshire, which comes in 26th — the rank Massachusetts held just 20 years ago.

With state government grants substantially reduced, developers say the only way to subsidize affordable housing is to build projects that combine it with market-rate housing. And that means tapping land available only in the suburbs, which have gone virtually untouched as the region's cities have carried almost the entire burden of providing affordable housing. For suburbanites, affordable housing is still something built in someone else's backyard. Chapter 40B is the only law on the books that can change that — and few laws are as likely to have as much of an effect among the apple orchards and culs-de-sac north, west, and south of Boston.

The phrase “affordable housing” conjures up scenes from Fort Apache, The Bronx, images of graffiti-covered concrete projects in city neighborhoods where hubcaps litter the gutters. But what's actually being built in Massachusetts is far different. The state's definition of “affordable” includes condos and single-family houses for families making 80 percent of the median income — that is, $40,080 to $56,160.

These are the workers the region needs to drive its economy, which lives and dies by knowledge-based industries like technology, healthcare, and education. The nonpartisan think tank MassINC has singled out the lack of affordable housing as a top hurdle to attracting and retaining such knowledge-based workers. A separate town study of two 40B developments in Hopkinton found that these developments have almost twice as many engineers and three times as many biochemists as the town's general population. What these studies suggest is that while residents are fighting to keep affordable housing out of their backyards, affordable housing is what's helping to keep their backyards green.

While Boston has aggressively permitted new housing, the city has only so much space. That's where the suburbs come in. “Boston can't have a housing crisis without Waltham and Lexington having a housing crisis,” says Ed Shanahan, CEO of the Greater Boston Real Estate Board. “The problem doesn't stop at the town line, and it's not going to all be solved in one town.” Two years ago, then-Governor Paul Cellucci challenged the towns to do their part in his State of the State address.

Almost immediately, Chapter 40B came into play. The law had been on the books since 1969, but many cities and towns ignored the mandate that 10 percent of their housing be affordable. To this day, only 14 out of the 150 or so communities surrounding and including Boston meet this standard, and several are working-class cities including Lowell, Brockton, and Revere. Sherborn barely registers, with 2.4 percent, and some towns — among them Bolton, Boxborough, Billerica, Walpole, and Winchester — have even less. “It's not like they just had from yesterday to do this,” says Benjamin Fierro, lawyer for the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts. “It's clearly an indication of lack of desire and interest.”

As the housing market tightened in recent years, and developers took advantage of the law to propose a rash of 40B projects, battle lines formed across the state. Red signs screaming “Stop the Condominiums” went up in Northborough, where a developer planned 22 townhouses. “Dine and dance and 40B” read the paper in Georgetown, where residents rallied against three affordable housing proposals with a dinner dance at the local VFW hall. Opponents of a 301-unit complex in Waltham handed out leaflets lampooning that project as a “no-cost, full-service, flash flood theme park.”

Fifteen miles northeast of Sherborn, in Weston, residents fumed when old-money stalwarts Edward and Polly Dickson gave a quarter of their 40 acres to a nonprofit developer for affordable housing. Where Sherborn is quaint, Weston is “refined”; where Sherborn is Puritan, Weston is Brahmin. Homes here are the most expensive in the state, with a median price of almost a million dollars, which means that half the houses sold last year went for seven figures. If ever there was a town that needed “anti-snob zoning,” this is it. Yet angry abutters tried to thwart the project, first offering money to scale down the number of houses and then attempting to buy the land themselves. But the zoning board permitted the development, and Dickson Meadow now includes 18 starter houses with attached garages and screen porches. True, they stick out like sore thumbs in the land of three-acre housing lots, but they are arguably less obscene than the brick and marble mansion with four-car garage across the street.

Most important, the market-rate, moderate income, and affordable units are virtually indistinguishable, even though the former sold at prices of as much as $800,000, while the six affordable houses were sold in a lottery for about $100,000 each. “I remember when they first proposed building this, people didn't want it,” says Lynette Vallejo, who landed one of the affordable houses. “Now they are probably pleasantly surprised.” A single mother who works as office manager at a construction firm, Vallejo grew up in Weston and rode horses on the Dicksons' land as a teenager, but she couldn't find a place of her own in the area. Now, since settling here, Vallejo says, she hasn't heard a peep from those who opposed the project. “Maybe they are talking behind my back, but no one has said a word to me.”

The case of Dickson Meadow follows a common reaction to 40B projects. “In many cases there is strong opposition, then gradually the town accepts it and even embraces it,” says Aaron Gornstein, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens' Housing and Planning Association. In most cases 40B developments even designate 7 out of 10 of their affordable units for people with local connections, such as elderly parents and grown children of residents, as well as teachers, police officers, and other town employees. Opponents, Gornstein says, usually have a stereotypical view of subsidized housing, equating it with city slums. “I like to believe that this is the prevailing reason for resistance,” Gornstein says, “and not just simply prejudice against people of lower income or different race.”

Not all communities are battling against 40B. Take Wilmington. Five years ago it had roughly the same percentage of affordable housing as Sherborn has now. It has since worked with a developer, AvalonBay Communities, to double that. “[Chapter] 40B has been the only tool to create affordable housing,” says Wilmington town planner Lynn Duncan. “Once you understand the process, developers don't have the ability to steamroll you. It's not the number of units or the density. It's how does it work on a particular site.”

The town asked for design changes, greater setbacks from the road, and improvements to one intersection. AvalonBay agreed, and even built fewer units overall. The town was so satisfied that officials approved a second project. “Time is money,” says AvalonBay regional vice president Bill McLaughlin. “If we can get it in the ground in a year, it's better than slugging it out in an appeals process.”

You'd never guess from looking at Avalon Oaks or Avalon Oaks West that 20 percent of the units are affordable. Nestled around pine and oak woods, both complexes include outdoor pools and clubhouses with fitness centers. Some apartments feature gas fireplaces and all have central air and washers and dryers. But while market-rate one-bedrooms start at $1,400, identical affordable units are less than half that. That's within reach of Frank and Rose Grillo, a retired mechanic and secretary who moved here to be closer to their son, who lives across the street. Andrea Devoe also moved into Avalon Oaks West for her son, who has a neurological disease that causes blindness. She needed to be close to Children's Hospital. Unable to find an apartment in the city, Devoe bounced between shelters and transitional housing before landing here last fall. “It's nice to be in a place like this; it lifts you up,” she says.

AvalonBay hasn't always been welcomed with open arms. The company has been stymied in its attempts to build in Andover, one town north of Wilmington, and is arguing its case before the state's Housing Appeals Committee. “We were never able to get an honest dialogue started with the abutters,” says McLaughlin.

Jane Bowman, who lives around the corner from the intended site, tells a different story. She claims AvalonBay was deliberately duplicitous, performing a traffic study on the Thursday before Labor Day to undercount the number of cars normally on the busy road. More to the point, she says, Andover has done its part for affordable housing and should be allowed to choose where it wants to put another development. Sure enough, the town ranks among the highest in percentage at 8.5 percent. “There's nothing wrong with asking suburbs to pick up the slack, but 10 percent always escapes the town,” says Bowman. “It's a developer's dream law. They can build whatever they want, wherever they want.”

That's not exactly true. The appeals board does take community sentiment into account and hasn't merely been a rubber stamp for developers. A study by Clark University shows that in the '90s the Housing Appeals Committee sided with developers only 25 percent of the time. In the bulk of cases, it approved negotiated settlements (38 percent), dismissed the appeals (24 percent), or upheld local decisions (13 percent).

There are still four other 40B developments proposed in Andover, however, and the town will have to accept them all if the state orders it to. Cases like this have spurred some lawmakers, including state Representative Carol Donovan of Woburn, to propose an overhaul of the law. When Woburn turned down a proposal by Archstone Communities for 400 luxury units, the company returned with a hostile 40B proposal for 640 units on the same site, one-quarter of them affordable. “Only when we refuse the luxury units does 40B come into action,” says Donovan. “That's a very sneaky way of doing it.”

Donovan and her allies in the State House proposed a number of bills last year to change the law. Some suggestions have been adopted by the state: a cap of 300 new units (or a 2 percent increase per year in any community) and a one-year cooling-off period for developers to propose 40B projects in places where they've proposed market-rate developments and been rejected. “Some of the developers were using 40B as a weapon. We didn't want that,” says the real estate board's Shanahan.

Still, some lawmakers from the suburbs argue that the changes don't go far enough. They want more types of units to be counted as affordable, including mobile homes and market-rate apartments rented to people getting government subsidies. Advocates and developers counter that there are no guarantees those types of units will be affordable for the long term, or that the person receiving public subsidies will stay.

Another proposal, by state Representative Marie Parente, would exempt towns with 5 to 10 percent affordable housing until all towns have at least that much. That would put the pressure on more affluent places that have escaped development proposals because of their high land values. “I see reps from these 'snob zone' areas who say we need housing for these people but aren't willing to have it in their town,” says Parente, who represents Bellingham and Mendon, two towns that have been slammed with development proposals.

She singles out towns like Weston, and with good reason. The land donated by the Dicksons for development would have cost an estimated $3 million on the open market, a price no developer would have paid — not when they could go to a town with cheaper land, like Woburn or Bellingham.

In the end, every community has valid reasons why it should be exempt from affordable housing. Maybe its residents believe that they've already done their part, or that a big development is inappropriate in their rural town. Maybe they fear the strain on traffic, schools, or the environment. “These seem to be rational decisions from a town's perspective, but when you add them up, they are a regional disaster,” says Russell Tanner, principal for Rising Tide Development, the company proposing the development in Sherborn. He argues that the larger environmental problem is suburban building that eats up huge chunks of land for only a few houses. Still, he says he'll work with the town to modify his design.

Hearings at the Sherborn Community Center are drawing capacity crowds these days. A recent audience looked as if it was en route to a contra dance: men in checkered shirts and grown women with ponytails, one of them knitting through the whole three-hour meeting. But these weren't peasants with pitchforks. They raised sophisticated points about traffic and wastewater treatment, probing for any exception to pluck a unit or two off Rising Tide's plan.

Jim Murphy, chairman of Sherborn's zoning board of appeals, says he hopes the development company will add buffers to preserve the town's wetlands, and scale down the number of units. The town, too, is willing to negotiate. “This town would take affordable housing in a heartbeat if we could figure out a way to do it,” Murphy says. He points out that Sherborn recently permitted a senior living center and even included goals for affordable housing in its general plan.

The real question is whether Sherborn would have done any of that if not for the threat of 40B. In fact, the law's greatest role may simply be in providing the stick that has forced towns and cities to develop their own affordable housing.

“We've been trying to get the word out that communities are not powerless,” says housing advocate Gornstein. “If you've made progress or identified areas to add affordable housing, you may have a case.” On the other hand, he says, 40B is a powerful law, ignored at a town's peril. “If you haven't made progress in terms of affordable housing, you're on thin ice.”