Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Affordable Housing and the CPA

Monday night I had a brief conversation with Dori Peleg of Watertown Community Housing. WCH is one of the groups involved in bringing the Community Preservation Act to the ballot here in Watertown, so I wanted to ask her about that and some of the other projects that WCH is involved with.

Since the CPA sets aside funds both for open space and affordable housing, I asked whether those were two conflicting missions; after all, a parcel of land can't simultaneously be a park and an apartment. Peleg assured me, though that a good development project -- and certainly the ones that WCH are interested in -- will balance the environmental, historical and housing needs of the community. Peleg pointed out the Trolley Square Development in Cambridge, which also uses CPA funds, as an example of what could be accomplished. Of course Cambridge, as others have noted, is one of the only communities with any interest in using CPA funds for affordable housing above the minimum required. When I asked about this, Peleg admitted that affordable housing was harder to get support for than park space or even historical preservation, but the reason that WCH wanted to get involved early in the CPA approval process was to ensure that they had a seat at the table should the measure be enacted.

As a non-profit, WCH would be the recipient of much of the CPA funds earmarked for affordable housing. While the town does have an inclusionary zoning law that requires 10% of all new developments of ten units or more must be affordable, this is the responsibility of the developers, not the town. CPA funds would only go towards properties that are owned and managed by the town, so under normal circumstances a for-profit developer would not be eligible for subsidies.

The town is currently spending money that could be replaced with CPA funds, should the CPA be enacted. The town is working with WCH on a number of existing projects, including the First Home Program. With additional funds from the Community Preservation Act, WCH could provide larger loans at less cost to the town and other involved parties. (Properties bought through the First Home Program are deed restricted; when they are sold, the price is limited to ensure that they remain affordable.)

So, who would be eligible for the affordable housing? Generally, those who earn under 80% of the area's median income -- a condition which is normally only checked at the time of application for assistance. In Watertown, median income for a family of four is $68,465, so a family is “low-to-moderate income” if it takes in $54,772 or less. At present 5.45% of Watertown's housing stock is considered affordable, though WCH considers “enough” affordable housing to be at a level that would allow all moderate-income or below households (about 10,000 in Watertown) to pay a third of their income (or less) on housing. For that to happen, roughly a third of the town's housing would have to be affordable.

WCH was also involved in a bid to turn the vacant Coolidge School in the East End into affordable housing units. Last week, the town council rejected the WCH plan in favor of a private developer. Peleg expressed her dismay at the decision, which would still create ten affordable units out of a total of 35, but said that the decision was expected. The silver lining, from her point of view, was that at least those ten units would be created, whereas if the town had voted to move the police station to the Coolidge School site, there would have been no additional housing stock put on the market.

While some landlords may complain that affordable housing could depress rental prices in Watertown, those fears seem to be unfounded given the scope of WCH. The number of subsidized units is so miniscule compared to the larger rental market that it is unlikely to be a drag on rents, at least in the short term. In addition, creating affordable housing allows municipal employees, firefighters, police officers, and teachers to actually live in the town they help support. An abundance of housing can also help attract new businesses to the town because they will not have to worry where their workforce is going to live or if they can afford to live there.

In fact, the wider application of the CPA could serve to increase property values in Watertown. For example, using CPA money to restore historical character to old houses can help to increase property values in entire neighborhoods, as could creating more open spaces.

If you are interested in learning more about Watertown Community Housing, you can contact them through their website.