In Massachusetts towns that have adopted the state’s Community Preservation Act, appointed committees make recommendations to town councils on how to spend the money. The community preservation funds are often used for open space, historic preservation or recreation projects, but they can also be applied to community housing projects.
Community housing is defined in the law as “low and moderate income housing for individuals and families, including low or moderate income senior housing.”
Gatehouse Media reporters took a close look at how several Massachusetts towns are handling their community preservation spending. While a lot of the money is dedicated to open spaces and historic preservation of town properties, some affordable housing projects are funded. For example, the town of Chelmsford has spent $2.1 million in community preservation funds on the 116-unit Chelmsford Woods complex, a property of the Chelmsford Housing Authority.
The town of Belmont, west of Boston, and two current affordable housing projects offer a dichotomy in how effective community preservation funds are for improving or increasing affordable housing.
In the first case, Belmont Village, 25 four-family buildings with 100 total units, had outdated electrical wiring with only one outlet per room. Most people were using extension cords, according to Margaret Velie, chairwoman of the Belmont Community Preservation Committee.
Belmont Village, originally built in 1950, is a state-aided housing project of the Belmont Housing Authority that is home to families and veterans. There are 50 two-bedroom and 50 three-bedroom apartments. Belmont earmarked more than $522,000 in its community preservation funding in 2015. Interior wiring upgrades, and additional electrical outlets, are being completed this summer.
According to Gatehouse Media, the town also previously set aside $375,000 of community preservation funds for a first-time homeowners assistance program to procure three more affordable housing units. But the program has not been very effective. A lottery gave three residents earning below 80 percent of median average income a chance to use a portion of the earmark to help them purchase condominiums, in exchange for the three properties becoming part of the housing authority’s affordable housing portfolio.
According to Velie, all three residents have not been able to find affordable condos in the Belmont housing market.
How are Community Preservation Funding Requests Made?
Local groups and town agencies are typically allowed to seek community preservation funds. But it’s usually a town committee or official working with a community organization making the request, Evan Belansky, director of community development in Chelmsford, told Gatehouse Media.
Chelmsford Housing Authority requests come through the authority’s executive director, for example. Small projects may also receive community preservation funding through capital improvements cycles.
But there are also ways to get approved without having to make a request through the community preservation committee and then have it recommended and approved at a town meeting.
“What we do in Chelmsford over the years, is we have learned some lessons on how to expedite the process,” Belansky said. “For example, we have an open space and recreation account, whereby the community preservation committee can approve smaller-dollar figure projects, so it is direct, without town meeting approval.”
Note in other states, there is similar funding for historic preservation designations. But, the historic preservation designation can play the double agent in local affordable housing battles, as EfficientGov has reported on previously.