SALEM — A trifecta of housing development options are gradually working their way through the City Council's chambers.
One, which would allow vacant municipal and religious buildings to be converted into housing through a special permit process, is running out of time for passage and was tabled ahead of a special meeting Aug. 1. Another, which would loosen restrictions on in-law apartments, is still in the public hearing process.
The third, another expansion of tax breaks to encourage developers to build housing, was introduced Thursday night and sent to the City Council's economic development committee.
The Housing Development Incentive Program was first launched a couple years ago targeting six downtown properties. It's scope was later expanded to cover all of downtown and the North River Canal Corridor. The proposal filed Thursday would make all property in the city eligible for the incentive.
"We're proposing it to be citywide because we see the challenge of doing housing development outside of the current boundaries of the program area," said city planning director Tom Daniel. "We're saying, following (tax-increment financing models), all of Salem can be a housing development incentive program area, and if an applicant found a need for support through this program, they'd be eligible for it."
The program was launched in part to help support Diamond Sinacori's redevelopment of the old district court at 65 Washington St. The incentive will save the developer about 10 percent on taxes for the first five years of tax bills.
While an accessory dwelling unit ordinance is stuck in a continued public hearing set for Aug. 15, a "municipal and religious reuse" permit program is facing a more dire situation after getting stuck in the City Council chambers at the end of June.
The program was initially pitched as a zoning change that eventually couldn't get enough City Council votes to pass in March. The idea was reintroduced in early May as a special permit process, but a joint public hearing on the matter wasn't held until June 17.
Under state law, the issue must be resolved within 90 days of the hearing closing or else it dies. The last City Council meeting in June failed to move the issue forward — a split vote to send the issue to an ordinance committee was held up for reconsideration, leading into Thursday night's meeting.
As a zoning change, it needs two passages to take effect, Daniel said. It would need either immediate passage Thursday night or a special meeting held before Sept. 15 to save it.
It's a situation that city Mayor Kim Driscoll has shared her frustration over.
"These are some of the easier, common-sense approaches (to resolving the city's housing crisis)," Driscoll said. "We have lots of old school buildings that have been re-used for housing not just in Salem but other places."
Describing the different housing initiatives as "low-hanging fruit," Driscoll argued that the City Council has spent 15 months working on the reuse proposals.
"We're at a point where we really have to ask, do we want to address this housing challenge in our community?" she said. "If so, these are the sorts of actions we need to take. They're beyond reasonable and very necessary."
Six residents spoke in favor of the reuse ordinance to open the meeting, including Stevie Brandenburg, who pulled papers to run for School Committee this year but had to abandon her plans.
"As a Salem resident who recently had to drop her campaign because of housing issues and not being able to find an apartment here, I feel pretty passionate about it," she said. "Even looking online and trying to find properties is staggeringly different than it was three years ago, nevermind affordable for a single person to live."
Kate Abarbanel, a small business owner, connected the discussion to financial insecurity.
"Being financially insecure in Salem is quite terrifying because, if I were to lose my affordable apartment, I would have to move out of Salem," Abarbanel said. "We need to open up affordable housing, even any open housing will help with such an intense demand. I don’t really like to watch my friends who want to run for office, business owners being pushed out of town."