Local Government and Politics, News

Peabody City Council revisits low-cost housing

PEABODY — Three months after the City Council upped the requirement for developers to provide affordable housing, a councilor is seeking to reverse the provision.

Ward 5 City Councilor Joel Saslaw will try to convince the 11-member panel Thursday night to reduce the percentage of affordable units to 20 percent, down from the 25 percent approved by the council in April.   

“We increased the affordable requirement to 25 percent, from 15 percent last spring, but it will handicap developers and discourage housing construction,” he said.      

Debate over so-called inclusionary zoning, which requires builders to reserve a percentage of the apartments or condominiums for income-eligible tenants or buyers, comes amid a housing crisis in Massachusetts. 

Through May, the number of single-family home sales fell by 7 percent in Peabody, while the median price rose by 2.4 percent to $435,000, according to Boston real estate tracker The Warren Group. 

For renters the news is not much better. The average rent for a one-bedroom in Peabody swelled by 3.6 percent in the first quarter to $1,583, up from $1,528 last year, according to CoStar, a Washington, D.C.-based company, with offices in Boston, that racks nearly 7,000 units on the North Shore. 

Two-bedrooms saw average rents rise 1.3 percent to $2,022. Debate over the percentage of affordable units is complicated by the fact that when the council approved 25 percent, they also agreed to allow buildings up to five floors.  

They later lowered the maximum height to four stories. As a result, Saslaw said, it shrunk margins for developers, making it unlikely housing would get built.

“It’s certainly not an incentive for them to build,” he said. “The amount of affordable units is still going up to 20 percent from 15 percent. I’m uncomfortable with five- and six-story buildings, and the trade-off is developer-friendly.”

The new zoning amendments would allow construction of housing at most of the Northshore Mall, several parcels on nearby Cross and Prospect streets and Route 1 South, and at 190, 190R and 176 Newbury St., better known as Route 1, including Mac’s Trailer Park, a mobile home park with 22 lots. 

City Councilor-at-Large Ann Manning-Martin, who originally proposed 25 percent and won unanimous council approval, said she wants to keep the number the same. 

“I don’t have a problem with five-story buildings on Route 1, that’s the place for height,” she said. “Why should we cave to developer demands just weeks after making an effort to provide housing to combat this crisis? That’s a lose-lose for the city.”

Without the change in zoning, she said, builders would never have been able to construct housing at those locations. The answer, she insisted, is to keep the higher height limit and maintain the affordable percentage at 25 percent.

“We won’t be able to provide market rate and affordable housing without taking these bold moves,” she said.

Still, at 25 percent on those handful of parcels, Peabody’s inclusionary zoning exceeds two of the state’s biggest cities. In Boston, the affordable requirement ranges from 13 to 18 percent depending upon the section of the city. In Somerville, the inclusionary zoning rate is 20 percent citywide for all developments of 18 or more units.

It’s unclear where the city’s Community Development Office stands on the issue. Its director, Curt Bellavance, did not return a call seeking comment.

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