By Alan Burke
---- — 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.
“Swallowing this pill is better than swallowing the 40B pill,” she said. “The sooner we can get the plan certified, the sooner we can deal with the 40Bs.”
But the plan prompted Councilor Barry Osborne to declare, “There’s probably no such thing as a friendly 40B.”
“There’s never been a friendly 40B,” Councilor Dave Gamache said. “... They don’t go where you want them to. If they did, they wouldn’t be 40Bs. ... The only time you hear of 40Bs is when they want to circumvent the zoning. ... The ones who get the shaft are the people of the city.”
In Peabody, the issue is particularly vexing because there are hundreds of mobile homes that are widely viewed as a form of low-income housing, but most don’t count toward the city’s total.
Gamache believes they are the key that could get Peabody beyond the 10 percent threshold. The problem: For housing to be certified as low-income, the state requires proof that a given resident qualifies as low-income and a deed restriction reserving the home as affordable for 15 years.
Not all mobile-home dwellers want such a restriction. Further, not all qualify as low-income residents — which is the reason the state has consistently declined to include all mobile homes toward the 10 percent threshold.
Gamache counts himself something of an expert on the sentiments of mobile-home owners — he’s lived in his mobile home for decades. The key to getting his neighbors’ cooperation, he believes, is education, letting them know how much it means to the city and what benefits, including grants, will go to them as low-income residents.
He is urging the city to do more to make this happen.
The city has already begun to reach out to the mobile-home residents. Up to a fourth of them have been accepted by the state, according to Sawyer, the largest amount in any Bay State community. But she remains skeptical when it comes to focusing on the mobile-home residents as a solution to the problem.
“It’s very difficult,” she said in an interview, pointing to the barrier of getting mobile-home owners to agree to a deed restriction.
Mayor Ted Bettencourt proposes “looking at some different options” to reach the 10 percent threshold. But he expressed sympathy for the notion that mobile homes could provide needed numbers.
“The city does have a large mobile-home community,” he said. “There should be some credit for that.”