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Responsible approaches to affordable housing in small towns

Modern Times in Small New England Towns

In our beloved New England towns, we know the 21st century challenges: the new economy, aging infrastructure and more. But the hottest topic before our towns: What is our housing need and how do we best meet it? The new Affordable Housing (AH) Planning Project beginning in Falls Village, Cornwall and Barkhamsted is kicking off with three webinars: How is Affordable Housing Funded? How much affordable housing do we need? And why do we have insufficient housing for the young and for seniors?

In our first webinar, David Berto made clear just how vast the options are for financing AH. He explained the approach to selecting type and location and when asked, fully supports using a “charrette”, a gathering of residents, municipal leaders and planners together to find concepts that the whole community can support, removing the likelihood of NIMBY conflicts. Next, Sam Giffin’s topic was how much AH is needed and he acknowledged job availability and transportation as key to some types of housing, the questionable role of Incentive Housing Zones and the positive impact of using mixed incomes in a development. He focused on responsible planning, population growth or reduction, the need for multi-family and the role of zoning changes.  He did not emphasize the importance of a 10% AH minimum per town.

I hope to clear up the misconceptions about the state “punishing” towns for a lack of 10% AH and the NIMBY dilemma.

There is an existing statute: Sec 8 30g. It offers a carrot to developers of AH. There is no stick, there is no enforcement action in the “30g” statute. It works like this: if an AH developer has a project denied and sues the town to overturn the decision, and if the town has less than 10% AH, the town bears the burden of proof that its decision should be upheld. Now, if the town has 10% AH or more, the developer can still sue. But just who is suing our towns? Is it our housing councils and trusts? The key is that our state is not suing our towns, nor imposing taxes or other punishments. Moreover, some of our towns have adopted incentive housing zones (IHZ). In the case of these IHZ’s, the developer cannot claim the “30g” advantage, should they be turned down and choose to sue the town. A specific exception has been added to the statute such that you cannot use “30g” in an IHZ development. But how is this important, again who is suing our towns? Our trusts and councils? Our own Council of Governments (COG)?

This leads to the next big question: Why are our small towns using Incentive Housing Zones? If NIMBY is right about anything, it is that an exceptionally high-density project doesn’t belong in anyone’s back yard, mine or yours. Scale is important to the economy of a small town, and building housing is an expensive commitment that lasts long into the future after the developer has left for the Cayman Islands. Scale should be right sized, not as big as possible.

I hear very responsible neighbors ask: what about our teachers, first responders, trades and craftsmen, artists and artisans, service workers, healers, elders and the young, farmers, technicians and technologists, all of us. I think our towns can accommodate all of us but where do we begin?

I suggest we start with a “charrette” bringing neighbors, town leaders and planners together to identify what is best for each town. Do we have anything at all for our seniors and physically handicapped? Could some state-of-the-art rental units for these current members of our community, a mix of AH and market rentals, free up their older homes to new buyers?

Can our towns help our young families buy some of these older homes, rehab them to contemporary use? A community service organization can keep lists of families, properties, contractors, banks with low-rate mortgages for first time home buyers, and more.

Please write to me at daly.reville@gmail.com and let me know what I am missing, what ideas you would like to add to the discussion. I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Daly Reville is a retired IT Systems Engineer, Masters Student of Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis, Alternate Member of Affordable Housing Task Team, Alternate Member of the Board of Finance, Falls Village.

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