Chatham Finance Committee Endorsed Major Housing Proposals

By: Tim Wood

Municipal finance.

CHATHAM – The finance committee is putting its money where its mouth is. Or, rather, the town's money.

Acting on conclusions reached by a committee working group a year ago, the committee is recommending the voters approve four town meeting articles that take significant steps in the drive to increase the availability of attainable and affordable housing in town.

The committee backed the acquisition of property to build both affordable and attainable housing; use of town-owned land on Middle Road for that purpose; and two home-rule petitions, one that allows the town's housing trust to include attainable housing and a second that would expand use of Community Preservation Act funds to include attainable housing.

“Affordable housing has run the table at the finance committee,” remarked Chairman Stephen Daniel.

Selectmen also endorsed the article calling for the town to purchase 2.44 acres at 2337 Main St. in South Chatham owned by Dennis Jordan. Funds to cover the negotiated price of $974,100 would be split between the affordable housing trust fund and free cash. The trust funds can only be used for affordable housing, available to those who earn up to 100 percent of the area median income; the board has targeted the attainable housing to those who earn up to 200 percent of area median income.

The fincom vote to support the purchase was 8-1, with member Norma Avellar dissenting. She questioned the number of units that could be built on the land, noting that it is at a curve on Route 28 where visibility is poor.

“It's not a safe place for either access or egress,” she said.

No decision had been made on the number of homes the land can accommodate or whether they will be ownership or rental units, said Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan. A four-lot subdivision exists for the property, and there is an existing house on one of the lots, so four is likely the minimum number of units. A feasibility study will be done and community engagement sessions held to solicit input from residents about what sort of development they'd like to see there, she said.

The Middle Road property includes a total of about 19 acres, but taking wetlands, topography and buffer areas into account, two areas are being examined for affordable and attainable housing development, one approximately three acres, the other 5.2 acres.

A feasibility study will also be done on the Middle Road land. “That will help to determine what can be built, the locale of the sewer and what it would take to bring the sewer in,” said Donovan.

The finance committee voted unanimously to support the measure, but Avellar sounded a note of caution that the town not sacrifice scarce open space for housing, no matter how dire the need.

“No matter how many people you have, you have to have some open space,” she said. “I just think we are abusing the gifts that were given to us...for open space and using it as a quick excuse to put housing up.”

“We're not taking any dedicated open space and turning it into houses,” said Donovan. “That's not the intent of what we're doing.” Town-owned open space often has conservation restrictions, but that's not the case with the Middle Road property, she said, and is one reason officials looked at privately-owned parcels to expand affordable and attainable housing.

An article to seek special legislation that would revamp the existing affordable housing trust to add attainable housing to its wheelhouse and restructure its membership is in line with the finance committee's working group recommendation to move the group away from the “old model” of a select board-led trust to a more community-oriented body. The measure would create a way to accept funds to use for attainable housing; the current affordable trust can only accept funds that will be used for housing that meets the state technical definition of affordable.

“Currently we don't have an avenue to do that,” said Donovan. “We don't have a dedicated funding source to create attainable housing.” Having one board overseeing both affordable and attainable housing efforts will avoid the two categories competing against each other, she added.

Making the change will require special legislation. Consolidating both affordable and attainable housing into one board of trustees may be unique, said Select Board member Dean Nicastro. “That's my impression.” He doesn't see it as being controversial, he added. “I'm trying to think who would oppose this in state government,” given that it proposes no next taxes.

Potentially more controversial is the article that would seek special legislation to allow community preservation funds to be used for attainable housing. This could attract the attention of Community Preservation Act supporters and other communities, said Nicastro, who proposed the measure. It's been 20 years since the CPA was passed. “What was moderate income housing 20 years ago isn't the same thing as it is today,” he said. “What could be purchased on a moderate income 20 years ago isn't affordable today.”

The proposal would not change the 3 percent CPA surtax or the structure or authority of the community preservation committee, he added. “We're just asking for some flexibility within our town,” he said. Even if opposition develops, “I think it's worth the chance to go forward with it.” The committee voted its support unanimously.

The finance committee did not take a position on the proposal for a “mansion tax” that is currently being revised by Select Board member Jeffrey Dykens. The proposal, also requiring special legislation, would impose a one-half of 1 percent transfer tax on real estate sales of $2 million or more, with the proceeds going into the affordable housing trust fund. It have a 10-year duration.

One of the finance committee working group's recommendation was to establish a committed funding source for affordable and attainable housing, which the surcharge addresses “broadly,” said Daniel, who supported the surcharge legislation. But committee member JoAnn Sprague called the measure a “discriminatory tax” that could depress real estate prices.

“I can't believe that the citizens of Chatham would consider that as fair,” she said. Avellar also said she does not support the proposal, which she said is “fining people for being successful.”

John Whelan, however, said similar arguments were made when Nantucket imposed a similar measure and none of the fears came to pass. Florence Seldin noted that most of the homes being purchased for $2 million and up were second homes or investment properties. She said she had no doubt buyers would pay the added $10,000.

“I think it's a rounding error for people who can afford a second home in this range,” said Daniel. “This type of fee to maintain the vitality of the community is worth the hit.”

The fincom also endorsed the proposed operating and school budgets, and was scheduled to take a position on the proposal to build a new senior center at its meeting Tuesday.