Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Communities actively working against affordable housing are being disingenuous—and setting themselves up for a legal fall.
Billerica, Massachusetts, is a suburb caught between the binary stars of Lowell and Boston, but it doesn’t much resemble either. The city is more than 88 percent white, and more than 82 percent of its residents are homeowners. The poverty rates for Boston and Lowell are 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively; in Billerica, just 6 percent of people live at or below the poverty line.
Maybe the worst problem facing Billerica residents today is affordable housing. Specifically, efforts to build affordable housing.
“Another affordable-housing project in a single-family residential neighborhood is not ideal,” the Lowell Sun reports, “but a proposal in North Billerica is countless times better because the developer is willing to work with the town.”
That’s the ostensibly objective take on a new apartment development in the works for Billerica. Things could’ve been worse for the town’s well-off residents: The Alpine Village apartments might have been built under a Massachusetts state law called Chapter 40B, which allows developers to bypass local zoning authorities if more than 20–25 percent of the units are set aside for affordable housing. A waking nightmare for the landed gentry of Billerica.
Instead, the developers are rather magnanimously addressing “mitigation” with residents, under a process called 40R. It makes for gripping reading. Billerica residents and leaders are not wasting this opportunity to make their feelings about affordable housing known.
"We don't want that land developed as a 40B because then the town wouldn't have the opportunity to protect the neighborhood,” Billerica Selectman Mike Rosa told the Lowell Sun. "This process gives the residents the greatest amount of protection."
Towns in Massachusetts are subject to 40B oversight unless and until they reach a 10-percent affordable-housing threshold. With its preponderance of single-family detached homes built on vast lots and high median area incomes, Billerica isn’t close to that level yet.
However—if you classify all rental-apartment units as “affordable,” a suggestion proffered by Billerica planning director Tony Fields, per the Billerica Minuteman—then the town doesn’t need to build more-affordable units.
"I'm less than enamored of victimizing a neighborhood to reach 10 percent," another official, Billerica Selectman Andrew Deslaurier, told the Lowell Sun back in June. His feelings were echoed by a resident, Dan Murphy, who said that density “fundamentally threatens our neighborhood” during a community forum.
There’s nothing all that special about the Alpine Village apartments or the affordable-housing push in Billerica. What’s remarkable, really, is that the city has identified affordable housing as an urgent civic priority. An Affordable Housing Productivity Plan, a major component of the Billerica Master Plan adopted by the town in 2002, notes that the lack of affordable options hangs over the future of Billerica. Young families can’t settle there, while aging retirees on fixed incomes can’t afford their property taxes.
And yet the town refuses to take even meager steps toward providing the affordable housing that the town acknowledges it badly needs. The Alpine Village apartments (179 units in all) would include 45 affordable units; residents are pushing to dial back the total figure to maybe 75 or 100 units, which would mean building two-dozen or fewer affordable apartments. Leaders are also working to literally push the building back from abutting properties, with a berm or some other form of setback, among other “mitigations.”
Moreover, all these apartment projects underway are located in North Billerica, near the borders of Tewksbury and Chelmsford. This part of town is marked by slightly higher density than the rest of the city. That’s one of the stated goals of the Billerica Affordable Housing Productivity Plan, in fact—to preserve low-density, single-family zoning and the wealth it engenders.
Goal 4: Locate housing of varying which on sites, [sic] which are appropriate for such densities.
Objective A: Continue to keep lower density single-family residential uses on medium to large lots (40–50,000 sq. ft.) in areas of the Town where the level of activity is less intensive.
Objective B: Sites near highways and business areas that can be effectively served by public services and facilities should be considered for multi-family housing.
Objective C: Use rational location criteria as a tool for evaluating sites that are appropriate for multi-family use.
Billerica could be any town—any predominantly white, affluent town in the country where almost everyone lives in single-family homes. They couch their concerns in the language of victimization, when they have in fact won the American Dream.
But communities like Billerica are in for a rude awakening. Schemes to build affordable housing that primarily serve to protect the wealth and land of its better-off residents will not withstand the scrutiny of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. Goals and objectives like the ones outlined by Billerica have been tried before, and they have only ever resulted in stigma and segregation.
Single-family home-owners in all white communes aren’t the victims. More often, they’re the perpetrators.