A Fight over affordable housing in a wealthy suburb

 

May 7, 2020.  A fight over development and affordable housing in an American suburb: the case of Newton, Massachusetts

A slightly shorter version of this article has been published on May 10 by CommonWealth Magazine

This is a story about a fight over a new large housing development in Newton, Massachusetts, where I live. Such stories, which involve stiff local opposition, play themselves out hundreds of times yearly in attractive suburbs of economically prosperous US cities. But this story has a trajectory and an ending different from the typical ones.

A typical story line goes something like this: A developer proposes a large housing project of several hundred apartments; the neighborhood or the entire community becomes alarmed and begins pressing local politicians to block it. A large controversy ensues whereby the local proponents of the project – a fraction of the local political leaders, some in the business community, and usually a minority among citizenry – point to the housing crisis, dwindling tax revenues, and stretched municipal budget; the opponents cite traffic, overcrowded schools, and the loss of the community character (a catch phrase that can include anything from the architectural design to xenophobia and racism). The specific tactics of the fight vary but the outcome is usually the same: the project gets killed. The wealthier and more educated the community, the fiercer the battle and the more likely the project’s demise.

This Newton story deviates from this narrative. It does include a fierce confrontation between the opponents and proponents, but the proponents formed an unusual united coalition representing a wide range of interests: the developer, local activists and most of Newton’s civil organizations. The outcome too is different: overwhelming approval of the project in a city-wide referendum.

Newton

The background of this story is the increasing income and wealth inequality in Massachusetts, a growing distrust between cultural groups, the housing crisis in the Boston metropolitan area, the looming climate crisis, and the recently released Newton Climate Action Plan.

The Garden City is Newton’s well-deserved nickname. In this city of 89,000, about 90% of houses are single- and two-family structures framed by flowering bushes and green lawns lining quiet sidewalks shaded by old tree canopies. Over half of the houses were built before 1930. They are known for their external beauty: rich in detail and endless variety. While daily life here is very much car-dependent, and zoning favors separation of residential from commercial buildings, Newton’s density is much higher than in the typical U.S. suburbs, and all the streets and roads have sidewalks. Since the 1980s the city has been essentially built up. The change in housing comes in one of three ways: replacing older one family homes with new ones, generally two to three times larger than the originals; replacing older single family houses with 2-4 family condominiums; and building multiunit buildings in a limited number of areas zoned for mixed use, generally by replacing old commercial structures.

Newton has excellent amenities: It is located only a few miles from downtown Boston, to which it is connected by several modes of public transit, and has access to two major interstate highways: north-south and east-west. It has an abundance of athletic fields, a lake with a public beach, parks, several large parcels of public forests, and the picturesque Charles River bordering it on three sides, offering bicycle paths, woods, and boat rentals. Newton is known for excellent schools, an extremely low crime rate, good services, and rich cultural life. These amenities are however being increasingly strained because the residential property tax revenues — the bedrock of its budget — are falling behind the growing obligations to the pension fund.

Newton is experiencing a rapid disappearance of housing for middle and lower income budgets. While a generation or two ago middle class families could still find houses in their price range, this is no longer the case. In 2019 the median price of a single family house listed for sale was close to $1.2 million. The housing crisis in Newton mirrors that in Boston and numerous other cities and town in its larger metropolitan area. Newton is also aging: 25% of residents are over 65. Many elderly residents live in homes that are far too large for them but cannot find affordable smaller alternatives within the city.

The project, its opponents and proponents

Sometime in 2016, Northland Development Corporation proposed to build a village of sorts, 950 apartment units in several buildings, with retail and office space, on three adjacent parcels of post-industrial land it owns (22.7 acres in total) in the area called Newton Upper Falls. For decades the site has been an eyesore of decaying buildings and parking lots, and everybody agreed that something should be done with it. But the size of the Northland proposal took the idea of development to a whole new level. Nothing on that scale had ever been built in Newton.

Apart from the visual impacts of the project’s large size, an increase in automobile traffic would be the most difficult problem to solve. The main road connecting the development with the closest transit stop and the rest of Newton is a very congested commercial street. The congestion has been recently largely increased due to commercial developments in the neighboring Needham, and the creation of a new nearby Route 95/128 highway interchange; 75% of cars on that street are a drive-through traffic over which the city has little control.

 Potential supporters of the project proposal included environmentalists, housing and seniors advocates, and social progressives who believe that Newton has a responsibility to address the state’s and its own housing crisis and who are concerned about the increasingly for-the-wealthy-only character of the city. Emphasis on affordable housing was very high among the proponents. Newton’s Mayor Fuller shared the views of the progressives and additionally looked to the project to generate tax revenues. She stated, “(W)e must preserve the wonderful quality of life we have in Newton while we make room for people of all means in our community.”

 

In 2019 Newton released an ambitious Climate Action Plan which aims for zero carbon emission by 2050. With regard to new residential construction the plan calls for higher density, radically greater energy efficiency and eliminating gas heating in favor of electric heat pumps. The latter two objectives are currently controlled at the State level so progress would require enterprising exploitation of opportunities. Green Newton, a highly respected local grassroots organization, did just that. Members of its Building Standards Committee, BSC, approached the developer, independently of the review process by the City, to directly negotiate about Passive House construction (PH) and the elimination of all new gas hookups in favor of cutting edge electric heating technologies. It was a brilliant move because the developer needed allies in the almost certain upcoming opposition to the project.

Passive House is a tradename for extremely energy efficient buildings. A typical Passive House reduces a building’s overall energy use by more than 40% compared to a similar regular new structure following the building code, and in some cases does not require any heating at all (hence the name passive). Because of the tightness of external building envelope Passive Houses require advanced technology for ventilation and air exchange, which generally produce better indoor air quality than regular buildings. The PH concept was developed, perfected, standardized and trademarked in Germany and during the 1990s and 2000s became widely adopted in Austria. The US has been lagging behind northern Europe in adopting the PH construction but in the past decade the knowledge on how to build Passive Houses, and the interest in them have rapidly increased.

The Newton Citizens Commission on Energy, an appointed advisory body to the Mayor and the City Council, and who were involved in developing of the Climate Action Plan, supported the BSC initiative, and so did other local environmental organizations. Northland had never even heard about PH technology and initially resisted the advance. But over time, and with the help of a consulting firm specializing in PH construction, and state subsidies, Northland acquiesced to build three of the eight building as PH (280 units), which would make it the largest such project currently existing in Massachusetts.

Among other supporters for the project, public transit and bicycling advocates such as Bike Newton and the Mayor’s Transportation Advisory Group supported the Northland project, pushing for limited parking facilities, hoping to attract one-car families and residents with no cars at all. They hailed the fact that the project would indeed be connected to the nearest T stop by the Upper Falls Greenway, a currently existing one-mile-long wooded bike path. Open space advocates pushed for an underground garage while ecologically-minded groups wanted to see a restoration of a natural stream which had been confined to a culvert for more than a century. The sustainable living advocates within the Energy Commission viewed it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a “sustainability village” in Newton whose residents could meet all their daily needs within an approximately one mile radius and create a thriving self-contained community.

The affordable housing advocates and social progressives aimed for maximizing the number of “affordable” and “workforce” units. And advocates for seniors kept their eyes for senior friendly building design.

The most vociferous opposition to the project came from two directions: the village of Newton Upper Falls and a city-wide coalition of anti-development and anti-urbanization advocates organized under the umbrella of Right Size Newton.

The City of Newton comprises 11 “villages”. Most villages have semi-urban walkable village centers, and each has unique character, depending on the level of urbanization, average income, architecture, access to public transit and cultural diversity. Some of the smaller villages, such as Upper Falls, have strong neighborhood cohesion and a sense of belonging among residents. It is a cozy place. Upper Falls is also one of the last vestiges of relatively affordable housing, partly because its industrial history traditionally attracted working families and immigrants to the area.

The main points of contention by the opponents were as expected: additional traffic, school overcrowding, and the loss of village character. They called for a much smaller, though undefined, project. The Northland proposal had come on the heels of several other residential constructions in Newton (far from Upper Falls). This accelerating pace of new buildings, although not extensive relative to Newton’s size and population, had not been seen in the living memory. It unnerves many long-time residents who are averse to change, especially change toward a more urban character. “We will soon be like Brookline” is a common phrase. One of these projects – a single four story residential building with 68 apartments – was at the time being fiercely (and eventually unsuccessfully) opposed by the host neighborhood, leaving behind lingering resentments, grievances, distrust of the government, and suspicions about the future of Newton.

Between 2016 and 2019 the 24-member Newton City Council worked with the city’s Planning Department, the developer, consultants, local activists and residents to shape the proposed project to its and others’ liking. This included the reducing the number of residential units to 800 and decreasing the amount of traffic-generating retail space. In December of 2019, after hundreds of meetings with the developer, fourteen meetings of the Land Use Committee of the City Council, of which twelve were public hearings, and intense last minute lobbying of City Councilors, the City Council approved the project with a 17-7 vote, one over the required two-thirds majority. More specifically, the vote approved a zoning change from the Mixed Use 1 District to the Business 4 District, which allowed the construction to proceed.

 

The final design had something in it for all the proponents and opponents, including: 17% affordable units; garage put underground to increase open and park space to 40% of the site; secure bicycle parking; ecological restoration of a brook that has been culverted for decades; several mini parks; three PH buildings; apartments heated with advanced heat pumps rather than climate damaging natural gas; $5 million for street improvements, including putting utility poles underground to create space for a protected bicycle lane along the main street; strict traffic management plan based on actual performance; free T passes for residents; free electric shuttle to the closest T stop, every 10 minutes, 16 hours per day; $10 million cash, including $1.5 million for the local school; and many more. The large size of the project made these amenities fiscally possible.

 

The Referendum

But the fight did not end with the Council’s vote. Newton constitution provides for putting a Council’s decision to a city-wide referendum vote if a petition is signed by at least 5% of registered voters. This is a low threshold relative to the similar state-level provision (12%) and relative to other Massachusetts municipalities (12 to 20% range). Over the next three weeks the opponents, carrying clipboard and signature sheets, fanned out to supermarkets, the public library, drugstores, anywhere residents congregated, and easily collected over three thousands signatures on a petition. The vote was scheduled for two months hence, on March 3, 2020, the day of the state presidential primaries. The “VOTE YES” coalition favored that date, reasoning that a large turnout would represent the larger Newton community, not only the most passionate opponents and proponents, and would work in their favor.

During January and February, the battle lines sharpened, emotions on social media exploded, alliances became reconfigured, and the nature of the debate changed. While in the pre-council-vote period Northland was an applicant negotiating with the City and the community at large, after the vote the Northland became one of the many proponents of the project. In the first organizing meeting hosted by a Newton resident, the Northland team and their communication consultant took the stage. The well-attended meeting attracted baby boomers who exhibited the type of determination I imagine them displaying in their 20s as idealistic social reformers.

In no time a large number of volunteers on both sides became mobilized: they rang doorbells, made phone calls, provided and dropped off lawn signs and hosted house parties, and submitted letters to editor of the Newton Tab. Northland’s consultant, who specialized in political campaigns, provided materials, training and organizational capacity for the citizen volunteers who supported the project. It maintained maps with anticipated leanings in various neighborhoods, surveyed public opinion on an ongoing basis, and flooded Newton mailboxes with high quality, glossy, mailers. Altogether, Northland outspent the opposition by 10 to 1.

The pro-Northland coalition comprised 16 local organizations, including business (The Newton-Needham Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Newton Economic Development Commission), faith-based (Newton Interfaith Clergy), conservation (Newton Conservators, 350Mass), municipal commissions (Newton Urban Design Commission), and housing (Uniting Citizens for Housing Affordability in Newton, Newton Housing Partnership, Engine 6, Can Do), Green Newton, and other groups. The Mayor and the Governor publicly supported the project, and so did The Boston Globe. Right before the voting day Governor Baker approved $400,000 grant to support an extension of the Upper Falls Greenway bike path.

The discourse also changed in that stage. In the pre-City Council vote period the discussion had focused on the technical and aesthetic aspects of the project, its impacts on the neighborhood, and the developer’s response to various identified problems. During the post-City Council vote stage the confrontation shifted to larger issues. The ethos of the proponents was about the future vision of Newton as a community responsive to larger societal needs: diversity and inclusion; affordable housing; and sustainability. One resident wrote: “As a Newton resident and homeowner, I wholeheartedly agree that we can no longer treat our city as an island, leaving solutions to our most pressing problems — climate change, lack of housing, transportation, affordability — to other communities. We don’t need 800 new housing units in Newton — we need 8,000, or more.”  To another resident, it was about the wrongheadedness of trying to prevent an increase of student population in the nearby elementary school: “Families with children are a protected class under fair housing laws. Communities cannot make zoning and permitting decisions based on a desire to restrict the number of families with children.”  A Councilwoman wrote: This is about planning a place for people rather than around the automobile…Smaller, energy efficient living units, walkable neighborhoods and having options to driving are critical…. This… is how we will finally make a dent in reducing GHG emissions”. And another:” “The project represents a new way of thinking about the suburbs, at a time of growing awareness that the land use restrictions of the last century have exacerbated racial segregation, environmental destruction, and income inequality.”

The opposition drew its energy from the idea that neighborhoods have a right to protect themselves from unfair burdens imposed by the larger community and a big for-profit corporation, from the lack of trust in the developer and the City government, and the rage for not having its voice heard. Wrote one citizen: “I don’t want to pay more real estate taxes to subsidize this developer’s profits. Northland’s estimations… understate how many students will be added to schools. ….I’m NOT anti-development. I just want reasonable development that doesn’t erode our quality of life and increase our taxes…. Developer profits shouldn’t trump community needs.” And another: “How did Northland become the defender of Newton’s progressive values? The answer is simple. They have a great public relations machine which disguises their true motive which is simply to maximize profits….What is perplexing is how many organizations and elected officials have bought the story that Northland is peddling, and have settled for the barest of minimums in terms of affordable housing, sustainable construction, and age-friendly housing.”

And from two other citizens: “Many citizens feel unrepresented and angry. The ballot is a chance to make the City aware of these feelings.”; “A no vote will encourage developers to engage with the community to bring better projects; it will also remind the City Council that it represents all Newton citizens, not just developers.”

The stakes were high. If the project were to fail Newton would not aim for a project of that magnitude in the foreseeable future; and the opportunity would be lost to advance the Passive House construction in Massachusetts and to create pockets of more sustainable lifestyles in suburbs. The anti-development groups in Newton and other Massachusetts communities would become bolder in their resistance to change, and both the state and the city would lose a significant opportunity to alleviate the housing crisis. Other developers would probably not even try to advance proposals such as this for Boston suburbs.

But the No vote also created a threat to the opponents: that of 40B. Under Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Law, in the communities which have less than 10% of their housing classified as affordable (Newton among those) developers who include at least 25% of affordable units in their projects are allowed a streamlined permit process and more flexible zoning rules. In practice it would mean that should Northland propose instead a 40B project, its size could be as large as about 1500 units and Newton would have very little control over its design. Although there was no formal talk about 40B, and Northland was silent on the issue, the informal conversations among the population were increasingly focusing on that possibility.

In the end the project did not fail: on March 3, 2020, with 51% of registered voters participating, 58% spoke in favor of the project and 42% against it. This large margin suggests that it was more than a victory for the party with much deeper pockets. Rather, it appears that Newton citizens truly believed that this project, while imperfect, was the best use of the 22.7 acres of post-industrial land in Newton Upper Falls. It also implied that large projects would likely be part of Newton’s future. 

The day after the vote an eerie silence fell upon the city. There was nothing to fight about anymore, and celebrations by the winners did not feel right in the painfully divided community. It will take some time to heal the wounds.

Conclusions

A Newton resident can easily forget about the growing social problems in the society at large. We are in a bubble of sorts, which the Northland project briefly burst by bringing into our community the issues of wealth inequality, lack of opportunity for many children, lack of housing for the middle class and low income working families, and the climate crisis.

The social forces giving rise to these problems are hard for individuals and local organizations to tackle; they have to do with the fundamental structure of the national economy and power relations. One area where citizens do have the agency to act is local land use and zoning. A large segment of residents rose up to use these powerful tools. But the project also threatened the treasured way of life in the cozy community of Upper Falls, and it unsettled many other Newtonians. In this case the social reformers prevailed because they created a united diverse coalition which included the developer, a player that does not have the best reputation as a progressive societal force. Green Newton took this opportunity even a step further by negotiating directly with the developer over adopting the Passive House construction.

But the cost of the victory was high. The developer spent millions negotiating with the City and the community, redesigning the project several times, and overcoming the opposition. A large national company, Northland, was able to absorb these costs, especially because they had purchased a large part of the land decades ago. But not very many developers are able to do it. And the high cost does not bid well for the future pricing of the market units in the development. That means that Northland village may not after all accommodate young professional families, the children of the current Newton residents. 

And what of other housing ownership models, such as, for instance, non-profit cooperatives? It is highly unlikely that such enterprises would be able to afford this kind of a fight.  

These concerns notwithstanding, the Northland village is a powerful beginning on the road toward what Newton was once: a garden city where the middle class to thrive.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*