Aaron Berdofe: Disdain and delays define Swampscott 40B project review

This article was published 1 year(s) and 4 month(s) ago.

In Swampscott, we currently have two affordable housing projects under consideration. Both have been filed under 40B, a state law created in 1969 which, according to the state website, mass.gov, enables local zoning boards to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25 percent of the units have long-term affordability restrictions.

Both projects by themselves would nearly double Swampscott’s Subsidized Housing Index (SHI), yet still leave us far short of the modest 10 percent threshold. 

Have they been warmly accepted? Not even close. Both have been harshly criticized by the Select Board and the Planning Board. Both have handfuls of neighbors vociferously objecting to them. To read through the objections which center on traffic, density, and ambiguous quality of life impacts, one could reasonably conclude that there are no differences in these two projects. But are they the same?

The Elm Place site is located off of Essex Street and is a mere five-minute walk to the commuter rail station. It was unanimously approved by the Swampscott Affordable Housing Trust. The site is currently occupied mostly by industrial storage and contains no green space.  

Developers proposed putting a five-story, 120-unit building in which 64 percent of the units will be either 80 percent or 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). A local builder is involved in the project and the developer has been warmly received in a variety of other communities.

The Atlantic Bay project site is located between Foster Road and Archer Street which is a 16-minute walk to the commuter rail station. The site is currently mostly undeveloped, wooded, and represents 25 percent of the remaining 19 acres of undeveloped land in Swampscott. 

In its place after blasting a large portion of bedrock, developers propose to put a five-story, 160-unit building in which 25 percent of its units will be 80 percent AMI (the bare minimum to meet 40B). It also appears the developer did not mention their previous failed attempt to develop this land on the application.  

Upcoming state legislation, Section 3A of the 40A Zoning Act, will require Swampscott to plan for an almost three-fold increase in density on about 85 acres within one-half mile of the commuter rail station. Why? Because Swampscott and other communities in the region have failed to build enough of not only affordable housing, but housing in general, to keep up with the region’s growing population.  

This failure has not only led to skyrocketing home prices, but it has also further ensconced how racially and economically-segregated communities in this region can be. 

Whatever our preconceived notions of acceptable density have been, they clearly need to change.

The Elm Place project can be part of the solution. The site is within one-half mile of the commuter rail station and while it certainly won’t achieve the necessary density in of itself, it helps. 

Additionally, the project is transit oriented, potentially reducing the number of car-dependent residents. Reducing traffic impacts as residential density in the town increases.

We have reached the point where it is important for the town’s leaders to provide some leadership, direction, and vision.  

Currently, the Elm Place project is stuck in limbo. The zoning board has devoted countless hours to hearing public comment on and discussing iterations of parking lot configurations even though, at the end of the day, these are not something they can cite in denying a 40B permit.  

The delay is unnecessary and sours the relationship with the developer. They would be wise to note the public has made comments on traffic. 

The board should also note the developer’s traffic study as well, as the peer review found no significant traffic impacts.

The board should vote to approve the project because there has been absolutely no reason found for them to deny it based on its 40B status.  

The current process has allowed existing single-family homeowners to repeatedly voice the same complaint about losing “their” parking spots on a public street, while offering zero space to listen to any potential future residents to say why this would be a place they would want to live. Why do we prioritize single-family homeowners above renters?

The Select Board would be wise to note how the developer of the Elm Place project has addressed their initial concerns. Then they can draw up a list of what they consider to be desirable and realistic future 40B projects aimed at actually meeting our SHI target in a reasonable time period.   

We are in danger of scaring off developers that are willing to meet the spirit of 40B and not just the letter if we treat them all with the same disdain.  

Aaron Berdofe is a Swampscott resident and a member of the Swampscott Racial Justice Action Group.

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