Column: Article 35 is a small but important step for more Affordable Housing

By Frank Feeley
April 27, 2023

Warrant Article 35 changes the formula under which developers in mixed use districts must contribute to increasing Concord’s stock of affordable housing.

The change should make it easier to build small projects in our town centers and increase the number of both affordable and small market rate units. The article reduces the required creation of affordable units in projects providing no more than ten units of housing, lowering from 20% to 10% the number of units which must be affordable. Projects larger than ten units are held to the existing requirement to create 20% affordable units. Application of the formula (subsidy percentage times number of units) can result in a number of affordable units that is not a whole number. But developers cannot build part of a unit. In situations where the formula results in a fractional number of units (2.4, 6.3) and the fraction is less than 50%%, the builder will be required to pay into the Municipal Affordable Housing Trust in proportion to the fraction of a unit they do not have to build. 

Thus, regardless of the size of the project, the builder will be making a proportional contribution to affordable housing in Concord. In small projects, there is no economic room to make a builder construct a full additional unit when there are too few market rate units to support the additional unit. In recent years, as Concord’s stock of affordable units has remained essentially constant, only two units were created under the existing rules in our mixed use districts. Three more units were created by using town funds or town owned land in collaboration with Habitat for Humanity.

We all know what development in Concord has looked like over the last decade. Smaller homes, once affordable, are purchased by developers, torn down and replaced with large homes selling for $1,000,000 to $2,000,000. We are losing homes that had been affordable to households across a much broader income spectrum

In our mixed use districts in Concord Center, Thoreau Depot and West Concord, we can create small affordable units on the second and third floors of mixed use buildings. There is nothing particularly historic about a single floor retail use. If this amendment makes mixed use projects feasible, we gain not only affordable units, but smaller market rate units with transport access. They will be built in buildings whose size and height are already limited by existing (and unchanged) zoning rules.

To most housing advocates, and many in the conservation community, this seems a sensible approach with no downside. The worst that could happen is that such small projects are still not economically feasible. Yet there are opponents, and they tend to make arguments which are either misleading or inaccurate. See for yourself what you think of these arguments.

“We don’t need these units,” opponents say, “because Concord is not forecast to grow very much in the near future.” Population forecasts take into account past trends. Concord’s population has grown very little since the completion of the Prescott apartment complex a decade ago. There has been a lot of construction, but much simply replaces former residents with larger homes for much wealthier buyers.

The population that needs smaller and more affordable housing units is already here: caring for us in nursing homes and health care facilities, staffing public safety agencies, teaching in our schools, building and maintaining our homes. Most adult children who grew up in Concord cannot find a place they can afford when they want to return after higher education.

Opponents also claim that the Planning Board and town staff do not know if the new subsidy formula will increase the small multi-use development we want. We cannot ask our planners to be developers. The financial profile of every project will be different. What we do know is that this desirable small scale development is not happening, and developers tell town planners that they simply cannot make the numbers work if a small project must include 20% subsidized units. The price of the other units cannot rise to the level where the new owners or renters provide this kind of subsidy.

Finally, there are residents who warn that this small change will result in the creation of huge luxury apartment blocks. Sure, these buildings are being built in Boston. But the buyer of a multi-million dollar condominium is not going to want a small unit upstairs over a Concord business. This is where a single teacher, a nurse, or a downsizing elder might like to live.

There will be no Millennium Towers because height in these districts is limited to three stories. 

We may get a large apartment complex that many Concordians do not want. But this will happen if we do not create enough affordable housing units. Under the “Section 40B” requirements of state law, a developer can override local zoning and build such a large complex so long as it includes affordable units.

Combined housing and retail has a long history in Concord. If Article 35 passes and makes small multi-use developments possible, we gain smaller and affordable units on a scale consistent with our community.