An affordable-housing development may never be approved for the Sowams Nursery property off of Sowams Road in Barrington – a plan has not been submitted yet despite a preliminary proposal aired by the East Bay Community Development Corporation several weeks ago.
But the possibility of this 56-unit rental development served as a catalyst Tuesday night for a wide-ranging and sometimes rambling discussion of affordable housing in Barrington and the town’s Comprehensive Plan and Affordable Housing Production Plan.
Affordable housing was the focus of a public forum held by the Barrington Housing Board of Trustees in the Council Chamber in Town Hall. It was set up to answer questions from prospective neighbors of the Sowams development and other residents concerned about the impact of this development on the town -- including property values, taxes, and penalties Barrington could face if it does not meet the state-mandated quota of 10 percent of all housing units being affordable.
The forum also demonstrated that NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) remains an issue for these types of projects, which often are perceived as less than desirable housing in a community.
Nancy Letendre, an attorney who specializes in housing issues as a member of the Ursillo and Teitz law firm, the town’s solicitors, handled many of the questions for the Housing Board. But members of the Housing Board were far from reluctant to answer questions as they were about a month ago at a previous meeting that had the Sowams development on the agenda.
The Housing Board’s reluctance actually led to the scheduling of the public forum – a promise made by Steve Martin, chairman of the Housing Board, at last month’s meeting.
Letendre explained that Barrington is under a state mandate to make 10 percent of its 6,000 housing units affordable to homeowners with incomes of $67,000 and less. Why 10 percent?
“I really don’t know,” she said. “It was a starting point. There may be towns with much higher needs.”
The state law has led to the creation of a Comprehensive Community Plan, she said, that pinpoints potential lots for affordable housing. The law also led to the need for Barrington to come up with an Affordable Housing Production Plan that shows the town is making a serious effort to make more housing units affordable.
Both plans, Letendre said, helps to control construction by developers. “The comp plan,” said Carla DeStefano, a Housing Board member, “guides the developer and the community.”
Affordable housing, in short, involves the use of federal and state subsidies and “density bonuses” that act as a type of subsidy for developers “in exchange for allowing deed restrictions” to be but on properties. The deed restrictions typically limit the future sale of a property for at least 30 years to someone in the same income level.
“Any property burdened with a deed restriction is eligible for a tax benefit,” Letendre said, in answering a question from Gary Morse of Westwood Lane.Morse said he believes those “tax reductions are a developer’s dream.”
DeStefano disagreed strongly. “It’s not a developer’s dream because of the deed restriction,” she said.
Not convinced, Morse asked the Housing Board to seek a legal opinion on the tax policy.
“It’s never been a challenge,” said Letendre, “but we will look into it.”
Scott Clarke of Old Chimney Road asked about the current number of affordable housing units in Barrington. The number is 160, said Housing Board member Steve Boyajian, which “leaves quite a gap to reach 600.”
Clark also asked about potential penalties if the town doesn’t work to create more affordable housing.
“The state could threaten to suspend the town’s eligibility for CDBG (federal community development block) grants,” said Letendre, which are a prime source of federal funds for many towns.
The Sweetbriar affordable housing development was mentioned several times by residents. Letendre described it as "a lesson for being prepared."
Sweetbriar in Bay Spring was denied by a Planning Board that really didn’t understand the issue, she said. East Bay CDC appealed the decision to the Housing Appeals Board and had the decision overturned. The case eventually ended up in the state Supreme Court, which sided with the Appeals Board.
The comprehensive plan and the affordable housing plan, both developed since the Sweetbrier battle, “give us a modicum of local control,” said Martin. “But one thing we can’t do is tell an owner what to do with their property.”
Letendre seconded his comment: “You can’t interfere with the property rights of an individual.”
Barrington also can’t develop housing specifically for Barrington residents, Martin said. It must develop housing open to anyone within the income guidelines.
Housing Board member Richard Staples said: "We are always looking for properties and strategies” to meet the state mandate. “If you have a great strategy, give it to us.”
Staples also said that affordable housing units, especially rental units, can allow young Barrington residents to stay in town after they graduate from college or leave home, when their incomes remain below the $67,000 ceiling. He tried to stress that these rental units can be what keeps the children of Barrington parents in their hometown.
He also described affordable housing as a step in the ladder that can lead to home ownership.