Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Cost of Being a Sheep: 40B

It is sort of sad that so many people simply deal with 40B as immutable reality rather than fighting it. Partly, this is because few people do the fairly simple analysis required to understand jsut how pernicious the law is, and how devastating its implications are.

For example, Natick recently faced a proposal by the owners of its eponymous mall to build a residential condo component. On the basis of the widespread interest in the increased tax revenues the condos would generate, I have to say as an aside that only a few people in town can really claim any integrity; the rest of us fall somewhere on a spectrum between street hookers and high-class callgirls. I include myself in that cadre, as I ended up voting for the thing. The negotiations over the project proceeded with many town fathers and mothers putting their thumb in and only a few putting any part north of their necks. The affordable housing feature that came out of the negotiation gave the developer a choice between providing a number of off-site affordable units equal to 22% of the total development, or deed-restricting 16% of the on-site units for affordability. The Planning Board in town, of which I generally think pretty highly, utterly failed to provide town meeting members or citizens in general any information about how that difference would impact the town's 40B status. It turns out to be non-trivial.

First some facts. Natick has somewhat over 10,000 households and about 32,000 residents. Natick needs about 500 more units that the law in its infinite cynicism will recognize as affordable in order to be exempt. The town has a fairly large number of affordable units that do not count because they are suicide kings or one-eyed jacks -- oops, I mean because they were created by variance.

Next some assumptions. Let's assume that large, multi-unit projects would have a somewhat lower average number of residents per household -- say about 2 per household instead of about 3 per household.

Okay, now the analysis. If Natick were to achieve exemption from 40B by developing projects at a 16% affordability quotient, the town would need to grow to over 20,000 units total, and approximately 53,000 residents. But if the town were to achieve 40B exemption by developing projects at a 22% affordability quotient, the town would need to grow to only about 15,000 units, with just over 40,000 residents. This analysis is not difficult. It requires only a recent Town Report, the knowledge that 10% affordability exempts a community from 40B (there are actually some other loopholes and one wonders whose districts they were written to fit), and a few rudimentary spreadsheet calculations involving only the four basic arithmetic operations.

Either way the impact is enormous. But the difference between the enormous impacts is itself enormous. And yet, none of the official folks responsible for the language of the Mall residence deal undertook any of the analysis. Why? Well, as I said, everyone was motivated by the big wad of cash on the dresser at the end of the night. But a similar analysis applies to nearly every community in the commonwealth of MAssachusetts. The wrenching costs and dislocations of opoulations and real estate values and open space that would result from meeting the 40B standards are huge and almost completely unreported. There are those who believe that the goals are set at levels that can not be met in order to keep the 40B door open for the many real estate developers who donate generously to political campaigns.

People simply accept this sort of highly consequential cynicism and mediocrity from the state legislature without bothering to question its lack of wisdom. Why? Well, some people have their own sweetheart streams of state money and don't want to rock the boat, I suppose. But that is not most people. Still others don't mind the state abusing their communities as long as it is the correct group of progressives in the correct party who are doing the abusing. But most people are not affiliated with even the dominant supermajority party of the legislature. I think most people simply do not undertake the relatively simple analysis because they are busy with their own lives and jobs, and so they trust that someone will alert them if a real problem exists.

Readers, consider yourselves alerted.

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