Watertown Asserts It Has Met Affordable Housing Goals, Can Prevent 40B Projects

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Watertown officials believe they have found a seldom used way to meet the state’s affordable housing requirements, which would mean developers could not build high-density residential projects without having to go through the town’s normal zoning rules.

The state law made to encourage the creation of affordable housing, often called Chapter 40B or just 40B, requires towns with less than 10 percent of its housing units that are officially designated as affordable units to allow projects with 20 percent or more affordable units to be approved in a streamlined process. Meeting the requirement is known as reaching “safe harbor.”

Watertown has not reached the 10 percent threshold. There is, however, a second method to reach safe harbor, which is having 1.5 percent or more of a community’s land devoted to affordable housing. Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon said that he believes Watertown meets that requirement, and by a fair margin.

The calculation came after the submission of a project in Watertown to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (DHDC) by a developer looking at a project at 19 Coolidge Hill Road.

“We had a deadline to assert that we had met that criteria or not,” Magoon said. “We did the calculation and we came up with 2.29 percent.”

Watertown’s safe harbor assertion was brought to the Zoning Board of Appeals on Oct. 23, which voted to officially assert the safe harbor, and to continue the hearing on the project until the ZBA’s January meeting (which had already been agreed upon by the Town and the developer, Magoon said).

The developer of the property at the corner of Coolidge Hill Road and Arlington Street submitted the project to the DHDC in July. The application calls for creating a building with 113 rental units on the 0.9 acre lot, and would have 28 affordable units. Also, the developer has had a community meeting about, but has not officially submitted, an alternate project on the site to create a self-storage facility on the same property.

Magoon said he informed the developer about the Town asserting safe harbor on 40B, but did not immediately get a response. The developer can appeal the assertion, which would mean Watertown officials would have to prove to the state their claim for having more than 1.5 percent of the land for affordable housing.

Proving the safe harbor will be a challenge, but Magoon said he believes the Town will be approved.

“Not a lot have asserted (they met the land area standard) and even fewer have had it approved,” Magoon said. “It is certainly not a slam dunk, but I feel pretty comfortable we are there.”

What goes into the calculation is complex, Magoon said. While Watertown is slightly more than 4 square miles in area, only the developable land is used as the basis for the calculation. Parks, waterways, roads, and town-owned property do not count.

For most buildings with affordable units, only the area of the affordable portion is counted, unless it has more than 25 percent for affordable housing. Then they can count the entire building, Magoon said.

Watertown would not be the first community to use the land area method to gain safe harbor, but only a handful have done it. Only three communities had received that designation as of 2007, according to a document from the Town of Acton, while 51 communities qualified by meeting the standard of 10 percent of all units being affordable.

15 thoughts on “Watertown Asserts It Has Met Affordable Housing Goals, Can Prevent 40B Projects

  1. This is good news! This town, which is a prime landing spot for developers and development, needs someway to control the high density residential development that is taking place. This type of development, which is often presented as coming under Massachusetts 40B, in essence allows a developer to circumvent local requirements and concerns. IMO this type of development, has overwhelmed Watertown and is allowed by the state despite it often being totally out of character with the surrounding neighborhoods and putting a huge strain to infrastructure, schools, neighborhood traffic flow and density, water and sewer etc., which are all already pushed to the limit.

  2. The Term is SUBSIDIZED HOUSING… not Affordable Housing. There is a huge difference. Affordable Housing is created by MARKET FORCES… SUBSIDIZED Housing is housing priced below Market Value because of SUBSIDIES that keep the cost ARTIFICIALLY LOW !!!!! In other words it’s CHARITY…. Nothing wrong with Charity… but we need to call it what it is.

    We are sacrificing ACCURACY to be Politically Correct…

    • So John, do you propose that we change the term in the Zoning Ordinance to “Subsidized Housing” in order to remind those who need it that this is Charity? And, per your Facebook comment, I’m curious to whom these people should be “grateful”, and how they ought to go about publicly expressing their gratitude for this generosity…?

    • Chapter 40B is not subsidized housing; there is no state budget allocation or subsidy for Chapter 40B units. Developers agree to rent a certain number of units below market rate at what is considered affordable. This is also the case when it comes to zoning affordable housing requirements. So, yes “There is a huge difference”. I would encourage you to read up on the subject matter.

    • John, would you like to make the beneficiaries of SUBSIDIZED housing wear a scarlet “S” so they can be heaped with shame?

      I don’t believe that I have seen any AFFORDABLE housing by your definition built in decades. Everything is LUXURY housing. And more supply does not seem to be bringing prices down. So perhaps there is more to this AFFORDABLE housing thing than you want to admit.

      • Good points Joe. Even though John is completely wrong in identifying Chapter 40B as Subsidized Housing, it is also an important component to providing affordable housing to those who need it. And, yes, for a very long time there has not been any affordable housing provided by the market. We need to do what we can to make up for what is lacking within the current market. Increasing our affordable housing set aside in our zoning is one of the ways we can do that, but we also need to make sure the units are actually affordable to those who need it the most. Currently, in Watertown does not require any affordable housing for those considered low income, which is people whose incomes are at or below 50% of the Area Median Income. Watertown only requires units to be calculated at 65% and 80% of the Area Median Income, with a disproportionate amount, twice as much, set at 80%. Those who need the most are left out of the equation. If you look at a number of other city/town zoning ordinances, you’ll see that most require units to be made affordable to those with incomes at 50% and 80% of the Area Median Income and it is distributed evenly between the two income levels.

  3. Take out the land masses of the Oakley CC golf course and the Mount Auburn Cemetery from the overall Watertown boundaries and its closer to three square miles in size. The Watertown 2019 ESTIMATED population is 39,954 people and we know that its higher with the all the unreported. The town populations continues to grow every year with no available land left to accommodate it. There is not enough off street parking for this many people and their cars per square mile. The streets are cluttered with cars for most of the year 24/7 and emergency vehicles face dangerous situations trying to get to people who need their services. How many people is enough in Watertown? 50,000, 75,000, A 100,000?? Watertown is tapped out and overbuilt and overdeveloped. Quality of life has diminished. STOP THE BULIDING!!

  4. Is there a benefit to being 40B compliant? Is there a penalty to not being compliant?
    The attempt to comply by using a property that is not guaranteed to by a housing development sounds unethical to say the least. There is an appearance that our local government is not doing it’s job if we aren’t in compliance with the state 40B law.
    Further, how is compliance even monitored? Is Watertown just relying on the housing projects that have been built or are being built to police themselves?

    • Good questions. The “penalty” for not meeting the 40B affordable housing requirements of 10 % affordable housing or 1.5% of land area is that it is much easier for developers to come in with denser housing than allowed by the town, which would have 20% or more of affordable units vs. 15 % now required by the town.
      Not sure what you mean about using land not guaranteed to be a housing development. If you mean the calculation to meet 1.5% land area fow affordable housing, you the land can only be counted if it already has affordable units on them.
      I think the Town monitors affordable units, and then has to periodically report to the state.

  5. Subsidized housing vs 40B is not the issue. Take this out of the political arena. What the real problem here is too many new units. Each new building brings additional vehicles to our already over burden roads. Each individual traffic study on it’s own may reflect a “manageable” amount of additional trips, but taken as a whole they cannot be ignored. These “manageable” trips have created gridlock at many of our main travel routes. It is near impossible to cross the Galen and Bridge Street bridges during morning and evening commutes. Main Street backed up beyond Waverley Avenue, Galen Street backed up to Newton Corner, Mount Auburn Street backed up beyond Summer Street and Bridge Street backing up Waltham Street beyond Bemis Park is unacceptable. Also, let’s not be fooled by the alternate transportation requirement and limiting the number of vehicles allowed at a new project. Very few people will be riding the new scooters or rental bikes in the winter months, and ride share vehicles are still vehicle trips. Furthermore, we do not need any more rental units. If we must allow additional building, require that they are for homeownership. We need residents vested in this community, not a transient population voting on issues that will affect us long after they have moved on.

  6. Fully agree with Stan. Too many housing units, too many cars, too much traffic, too much noise and only getting worse. Watertown needs to start some enforcement in a few areas. The first being with the amount of overcrowded and illegal apartments. The second with parking and coming up with better solutions. The third goal should be making Watertown more owner occupied and less of a rental community. As of now I believe more than 50% of our housing is rental. That’s way too high.

    I say put a parking ban in place that mirrors Belmonts ban.
    https://www.belmontpd.org/traffic/faq/what-rule-overnight-parking?fbclid=IwAR1zV7YX_VUo-MmmkusFemwOCWAkK0FkAkg45CqvXWbl95xOf3p4HAIXsuA

    OR start only allowing parking with a permit. If that were to happen the town would not only be collecting fees for parking but they would be able to track the amount of people living in a residence and who these people are. As of now many of these occupants in illegal or overcrowded apartments are living way under the radar. The Watertown/ Waltham line is ripe with overcrowded apartments as is the east end. More enforcement of both the housing and the parking will also help to improve the quality of life for these abutters.

  7. I guess traffic, noise, population density, etc. is all relative. Personally, I don’t see it being a issue, at least here in the East End. After living in North Cambridge for 15 years and recently moving to Watertown, I really miss the energy and sense of community of that neighborhood and would love to bring more of that to the East End. Does that mean I want five story condos and/or storage facilities popping up next to homes in my neighborhood? No, but I do hope that we see an increase in housing stock and that the town encourages new business to come to the neighborhood which will draw people from the surrounding towns (perhaps a brewery, coffee shops, artist gallery spaces, etc.) and encourage them to settle here.

    • This! I’m so excited that we’re getting a bit more density along the Main St and Arsenal corridors – that will support more shops/restaurants, more families and diversity, and a push for more frequency on the 70 that can give us two great bus corridors so that new residents come with fewer car trips.

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