The Town of Watertown has some protection from having dense residential projects allowed under the Chapter 40B law after being certified by the state that the Town meets a rarely used qualification.
Under Chapter 40B, communities in Massachusetts have to meet certain level of affordable housing or else they must allow the construction of housing projects with 25 percent affordable housing. Watertown currently requires 15 percent of units to be affordable new apartment complexes.
To qualify to avoid a Chapter 40B project, communities can get “Safe Harbor” by having 10 percent or more of its housing units sold or rented at affordable rates. Some communities have met that criteria, but Watertown does not (it has just over 7 percent). However, Town officials used another method, looking at the percentage of land devoted to affordable housing.
Assistant Town Manager Steve Magoon confirmed that the state met the requirement, certifying that Watertown has more than 1.7 percent of developable land devoted to affordable housing. That exceeds the 1.5 percent requirement.
“I think it is significant in a couple of ways,” Magoon said. “It is a result of a significant amount of hard work by staff — (senior planners) Gideon Schreiber and Laurel Schwab.” Secondly, I think we are one of the only, if not the only, municipality in the state that meets that criteria.”
Chapter 40B, which is meant to prevent anti-snob zoning that stops multi-unit housing developments to be built, has helped increase affordable housing, Magoon said. Watertown has 1,105 affordable units, but would need 447 more to reach 10 percent.
The 40B affordable housing requirement is either 25 percent of units rented at 80 percent of the median family income for the area, or 20 percent rented at 50 percent of the median family income.
To qualify for 80 percent the maximum income for one person is $63,448, two people is $72,512 and a family of four is $90,640 according to numbers from the Community Preservation Coalition. See more information by clicking here.
The safe harbor does not mean Watertown can deny any project, Magoon said.
“It does not mean we can stop housing from happening,” Magoon said. “But it means the work will have to be consistent with the (Town’s) Zoning rules and regulations.”
The calculation done after a 40B project was proposed on Coolidge Hill Road. Town’s calculation came in at 2.29 percent, and state officials did their own calculation, which was 1.74. They added some land that had not been part of the Town’s calculation, including Mt. Auburn Cemetery.
Magoon said the town has added a significant amount of affordable housing through recent developments and more will be added soon. Some, however, did not count toward the calculation. If a project is not complete, such as Arsenal Yards, then those affordable units could not be counted in the calculation, Magoon said.
Watertown is more secure in keeping its safe harbor than those communities who met the 10 percent criteria. Those communities count the total number of affordable units and compare it to a number based on the 2010 Census, but Magoon notes that after the 2020 Census, the number of housing units will increase for most communities.
“If the denominator jumps up above 10 percent they won’t qualify anymore. That doesn’t happen with the 1.5 percent rule,” Magoon said.
The recent calculation from the State only covers the Coolidge Hill Road project, Magoon said. Any future Chapter 40B Projects, including the one proposed for the former Sterritt Lumber site at 148 Waltham St., will have to be recalculated. Magoon said, however, he is confident the Town’s safe harbor will be reconfirmed.