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MIT Alumni Talk

I graduated with a MCP degree in 1971 and wrote my thesis on a new law in Massachusetts which had just been passed – now called chapter 40B. I went to my first hearings in 1970 and 47 years later, I am still in the proverbial front row of these hearings. In fact, my work has brought me in to over 180 of the 351 communities in Massachusetts, involving the permitting of over 18,000 units – and I think by now I have  heard almost all the arguments.

In essence, what I heard during the first hearings in 1970 from abutters, neighbors and public officials about proposed affordable housing developments is now being repeated by the children and grandchildren of those folks 48 years later. Apparently, they all read the same book.

Back then, these mixed income higher density developments were just beginning and there was no data or information to support or dispute their concerns, namely, construction quality, long term maintenance, disruption by unruly tenants, increased crime, traffic safety, too many kids in the schools, higher property taxes and lower property values – all of which were constant themes. These themes were not based on supporting evidence or documentation but became generally accepted myths – and myths have a way of staying alive in the public consciousness despite mounting evidence based on scores of studies evaluating the impacts of low & moderate income housing on neighborhood property values and other negative indicators. The results are consistent and almost always disprove these myths.  (eg., the Boston Globe article this past Monday on zero correlation between new housing and increased kids in the schools).

Nevertheless, the “concerned citizens”, who come from the most educated State in the country have not read, reviewed or digested any of the information. Their opposition needs no facts – only heartfelt assertions – like “I don’t want my child being run over in the street”. There are simply too many statements like that to cover in 3 minutes or 30 minutes.

The question is what fuels this opposition? And what does it say about our society which espouses inclusionary ideals?

I see two answers; the first is loss of control and that is a real fear – even though 40B has been on the books for 47 years, folks are surprised when a specific development proposed in their neighborhood doesn’t comply with local zoning. The second answer is, simply, density and of course, what density implies – which is not only a physical presence unlike the typical surrounding lower densities  but it implies more people – and people bring problems – traffic, school kids, loss of open space, bad actors etc. There has never been in my experience a discussion at one of these hearings about the common good for the community or the role of the local community as a part of a larger region or the state in addressing larger concerns – like the need for housing. Never heard it. Folks in this State simply don’t want multifamily housing of any type, which is exactly why there is no vacant land in the Boston suburbs zoned for multifamily housing.

Despite all the community Master Plans that call for diversity, those Plans rarely get implemented; I know – I have done a bunch of them. While planners plan, decision-makers zone. Planners are in the basement; decision-makers are in the board rooms. And zoning trumps planning every time.

So when it comes to making housing policy, on a national state or even regional level, what is clear to me is that there is none. In fact, what debate there is occurs at the lowest level – at the neighborhood or even the street level – but it is exactly these broader forums where housing policy and programs need to be discussed and implemented. 40B is an example of a broader housing policy but interestingly, it is an anti-planning tool – as I have been told by planners over and over – but when there is no real planning, it has earned its place. When I studied planning theory at MIT, I learned there were several kinds of planning  – from master planning and land use planning down to my favorite – called “disjointed incrementalism” – that approach, in fact, is what 40B represents and why it works and has produced over 60,000 units which would not have been created from community plans.

In summary:

We have made great strides in improving housing construction –because of technology, it is much more sustainable today, and at some point we will be building homes off computer scans. Hopefully, some of these breakthroughs will result in lowering the cost of housing but housing cost reductions will not by themselves bring housing to price levels needed to be affordable to the other half of the state’s population – not without intervention – and that requires a political will and a collective agreement about the importance of implementing fair housing laws, the importance of cultural and economic  diversity in our communities, the importance of providing housing for all segments of society to improve and sustain its economic health.

Because despite these technological advances, housing will always be a local issue; after all, it has to be built somewhere-  near somebody – so dealing with how to get it permitted in a reasonable time frame, with reasonable costs remains more challenging than ever.  As the title of my thesis indicated, legislation might well give way to litigation and housing policy will be left to the courts to decide.

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