Want to ruffle some feathers? Bring up the subject of 40B in Massachusetts.
The affordable-housing program, known technically as Chapter 40B, has existed for five decades and is the subject of endless debate across the Bay State.
The subject, however, is often clouded with confusion surrounding the program, how it exists and why it creates so much friction in a state where affordable housing is so tough to find.
To try and clear up some of the confusion, here’s a breakdown of 40B:
What is Chapter 40B?
Chapter 40B is an affordable-housing program that allows developers to bypass some local planning and zoning regulations if at least 20 percent of the units in the development are deemed affordable. (Affordability differs based on location, but more on that later). Cities and towns have little power to deny 40B developments if fewer than 10 percent of homes in the community are not designated affordable. In Massachusetts, more than 80 percent of cities and towns do not exceed 10 percent.
Why was the program created?
The program was created in 1969 after the state Legislature determined there were too many local barriers to developing affordable housing. Prior to 40B, not much existed in the way of affordable housing incentive programs. Fifty years later, not much else exists besides 40B.
Does affordable housing mean low-income housing?
No. In reality, to qualify for affordable housing under 40B, residents must make no more than 80 percent of the area median income, which varies across the state and can be quite expensive in some areas. For example, a family of four living in the greater Boston area could make up to $78,150 in 2017 and qualify for affordable housing under 40B. That’s 5 percent more than the Massachusetts household median income of $74,167.
Does 40B work?
The program is responsible for creating more affordable housing than any other program in Massachusetts over the last 50 years. But most cities and towns are still a far cry away from the 10 percent threshold envisioned by lawmakers a half-century ago. More than eight of every 10 communities still fall short of 10 percent, and almost 50 percent have less than 5 percent affordable housing. Forty-two communities have zero affordable housing.
Communities with higher rates of affordable housing tend to include cities, such as Brockton, Cambridge, Framingham and New Bedford. Cities and towns with little to zero affordable housing typically include smaller and more rural communities in central and western Massachusetts.
The geographical disparity is partly because 40B is market-driven, and most developers want to build where housing demand is high -- cities and eastern Massachusetts. Communities on the bubble, hovering around the 10 percent benchmark, are typically suburban areas.
Contributing to the slow pace in some ways is the lack of a penalty against communities that don’t meet the 10 percent threshold, other than it becomes much more difficult to say no when a developer comes to town and proposes a 40B project.
Why does everyone get so worked up about 40B?
The law --– in some ways -- is well-designed because it incentivizes developers to build housing at no upfront cost to taxpayers. This type of incentive is rare in development, especially across the country in recent years when tax breaks and incentive packages are often part of negotiations between developers and governments.
Nonetheless, 40B has become something of a bogeyman -- build more affordable housing, or 40B will get you! The local pushback typically comes from a few areas of concern. One, municipalities worry back-end costs stemming from the influx of new residents will strain local budgets and infrastructure, making it more costly for current residents to live.
Second, a stigma hangs over affordable housing because of its association with low-income housing. In many cases, neighbors fear affordable-housing developments will transform a neighborhood and drive down housing prices.
Finally, local officials typically don’t like the idea of losing local control over development, especially in a state famously proud of its independence. 40B for some represents gross overreach of local laws.
Is there a better way?
Chapter 40B hasn’t changed much over the years, but some communities are trying to be more proactive about building affordable housing. Nearly 150 cities and towns have received state approval for “housing production plans,” which are essentially blueprints for community-wide developments that include affordable housing. Others have embraced the streamlined permitting process under 40B and are using it as a means to work more collaboratively with developers. The process is called “friendly 40B.”
The effort to build more affordable housing is often at the forefront of discussion in a state where the governor in 2018 announced a housing crisis, but not much has worked quite as well -- for better or worse -- than Chapter 40B.