SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 10, 2013

New housing plan aims to stop 40Bs with 40Bs

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — It could be called a case of fighting fire with fire, attempting to put a halt to controversial 40B housing developments by creating, well, 40B housing developments.

The housing plan, which was approved in a sometimes-heated meeting of the City Council a couple of weeks ago, should get state approval in 30 to 60 days, according to Karen Sawyer, community development director.

That approval, it’s hoped, will lead to an easing of the ability of builders to use the 40B laws to push their projects in Peabody. The plan gives some control of new 40Bs while it encourages more low-income housing that could deter subsequent proposals.

The 40B law allows developers to ignore local zoning regulations if 10 percent of the units they build are affordable. The law is intended to help the less affluent, particularly the working poor, to find housing.

But the law also provides an out. If a community already has more than 10 percent of its housing stock at affordable levels, or if it can show it is moving in that direction, the developers can’t pull the 40B card.

The new housing plan, supported by Mayor Ted Bettencourt, highlights specific sites in Peabody where 40B projects might go. If this approach of so-called “friendly 40Bs” can be used to create new affordable units at a rate of one-half of 1 percent of the total housing stock per year, Sawyer said, then the 40B regime is held in abeyance for a year.

“You just have to show you’re trying to do something,” Sawyer said. “By being proactive, we are being rewarded by being allowed to fend off 40Bs.”

Better this, she added, than putting “our heads in the sand” while trying to attain the seemingly insurmountable goal of adding the 200 units of low-income housing to reach 10 percent. Under this plan, the one-half of 1 percent amounts to roughly 40 units and the goal can be reached over time.

Three councilors voted against the measure, including Rico Mello, Barry Sinewitz and Arthur Athas. The latter led the charge against it, complaining that the city would be in the business of pointing to places where 40B developers could go.

“Why are we helping 40B developers?” he asked. “This is tacit approval.” In particular, he complained about invitations to build at Lake, Walnut, Lynnfield and Pulaski streets.

Councilor Barry Osborne saw just the opposite impact. “What the plan will do is to allow us to keep the 40Bs out of the picture. ... I have a friendly 40B in my ward, and it works. It works.”

Sawyer said there are no developers currently on the horizon hoping to build 40Bs where the city is indicating — or anywhere else. She pledges however, to aggressively seek out developers and promote that option to keep the city above the state’s 40B threshold.

“That’s my job,” she said.