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February 23, 2013

‘Friendly 40B’ gets cool reception in Peabody

City falls short of low-income housing threshold

PEABODY — Peabody might be looking to its mobile-home residents as saviors.

Anyway, that’s what some city officials are hoping as Peabody has fallen short of the 10 percent threshold of low-income housing needed to prevent developers from invoking the controversial 40B law.

A state law, 40B allows developers to bypass local zoning regulations if 20 to 25 percent of any housing project is made affordable to low-income residents. It’s a measure intended to increase the stock of affordable housing, but its impact is decried in many communities because it often permits developers to build larger, more dense projects than local zoning allows.

In the current economy, it’s not been an issue, City Councilor Jim Liacos said. But at a council meeting last week, he ruefully recalled the days when it was.

“I really felt powerless when it came to the big, big developer. ... We felt we had very little power, very little say,” he said.

Now, Liacos and others are worried about what could happen if an improving housing market brings back the developers.

With slightly more than 22,000 housing units, Peabody is currently 196 short of the 10 percent target for affordable housing, according to statistics provided by the city.

Community Development Director Karen Sawyer and a team of consultants ran into resistance, however, when they presented an innovative plan for adding low-income housing to the Peabody mix. The signature feature of the plan is the “friendly 40B,” a housing development that would be negotiated into areas deemed desirable by the city.

“It’s a blueprint for promoting housing diversity,” consultant Karen Sunnarborg said.

Included would be sites like Lake Street, Walnut Street and the downtown. And with each development, the percentage of low-income housing would begin to rise and, eventually, top the threshold. Sawyer will next bring the idea to the Planning Board for approval and then, if successful, back to the City Council for its endorsement.

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