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Taking Back Our Future – A Workshop on Just and Sustainable Development

MCHC, John Andrews, MCHC c

Taking Back Our Future –
A Workshop on Just and Sustainable Development
by John Andrews, MCHC, 17 March 2005

What does the fight to preserve affordable housing in urban neighborhoods have in common with the preservation of agricultural land in rural communities of Western Massachusetts? Quite a bit, according to participants in the March 13 “Taking Back Our Future” workshop held in Waltham. Over 45 community advocates from rural Whately, urban Boston, and small communities across the state assembled to voice their frustrations with development that’s running roughshod over community needs while forever changing the face of Massachusetts.

Workshop organizer Jill Stein, president of Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities, began the workshop by noting that “What got us talking to each other was the state’s fast-track auction law that took development decisions away from communities. It violates so many interests – from affordable housing to environmental protection, accessible transportation and democratic rights – that it began to bring us together. We can see that across the urban, suburban and rural divides, and across a spectrum of issues, we have binding, common interests in just and sustainable development. Facing Goliath single handedly in our neighborhoods is a daunting prospect. But by standing together, can we face up to the powerful forces that are overwhelming our communities. The key is to reject attempts to divide us according to where we live or which issue we are most active with. . If we do that, we can be an unstoppable force for the livable, just communities we all need.”

Stein introduced representatives of several community groups who have been working to protect their communities. First, Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo, a long-standing advocate for community empowerment, explained the growing call to establish a Planning Department for the City of Boston. Arroyo noted that the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) has assumed the role of both planner and developer, creating an internal conflict of interest with community concerns. In addition, the BRA is not accountable to the local electorate. To address this and other concerns, Arroyo has been a strong supporter of the “Whose Boston? Coalition”. This new alliance of grassroots groups is working to “reclaim Boston communities for Boston people by working for an equitable and inclusive vision of a community-centered city in which growth and development serve residents’ needs.” Whose Boston’s is working to ensure that public resources truly benefit Boston residents. They are seeking to pass a local housing bill of rights.

Steve Meacham from City Life/Vida Urbana in Boston described his group’s efforts to prevent affordable rental housing units from being lost through conversion to market rate rents. He noted that in distressed neighborhoods, property values have recently increased because of government investment and hard work put in by residents in restoring their neighborhoods. But the dramatic increases in property values often motivates landlords to raise rents and evict the people who have invested their time and taxes in their community. According to Meacham “The social investment of tax dollars and time is privatized into private profit, and people are driven from their homes.” Steve called attention to yet another housing crisis just around the corner as some 27,000 units of publicly subsidized HUD mortgages near expiration in the next few years. Tens of thousands of low income families face potential eviction as rents for their units convert to market rate. To prevent this crisis, several municipalities have submitted home rule petitions to allow local city government to maintain affordable rents in HUD housing. Statewide enabling legislation is required before these home rule petitions can be enacted. The legislature unanimously passed such enabling legislation in 1998, though the measure was vetoed by then Governor Celluci. Passing it again has become a major priority of affordable housing advocates.

Gene Benson from Roxbury based ACE (Alternatives for Community and Environment) noted that low income neighborhoods are four times more likely to be the site of a problem facility such as a polluting factory, trash incinerator, or power plant. As a result, low income people are more likely to suffer from health problems related to dirty air or local pollution. “We have been systematically disinvesting in the good things and putting facilities with negative impacts into communities which lack political influence and economic power.”, he noted. An example of dangerous development is the BU Bioterrorism Laboratory that has been proposed for the South End/Roxbury area. It would house some of the planet’s deadliest biological agents, including Ebola virus and agents of other incurable diseases. ACE is helping lead the charge to avoid this type of development.

Phil Dowds, who has worked with the Association of Cambridge Neighborhoods and the Sierra Club, commented that because growth cannot be sustained indefinitely, “There is no such thing as Sustainable Growth – it’s an oxymoron”. He noted that the issues of housing and environment are associated with the issue of population growth. He cautioned that any community that attempted to isolate itself from population pressures by building walls around itself would ultimately fail because walls are no protection from a general environmental collapse. Population stabilization must be achieved on a global basis, and will require universal access to education, health care, and economic opportunity. The widening gap between rich and poor is reflected in growing housing disparities, as wasteful, oversized housing becomes standard fare for the well to do, while low and moderate income families face a housing deficit. The housing crisis can’t be solved if market forces are focused on building more space for those who can pay top dollar. We have to achieve a just distribution of housing resources.

John Belskis from the statewide Coalition to Reform 40B noted that the Commonwealth’s Chapter 40B law has been an “abject failure” in solving the affordable housing crisis. In the 30 years of its existence, it has produced affordable units at an average rate of 3 units per municipality per year. And many of those are “expiring use” units that will revert to market rate. The comprehensive permit provision of Chapter 40B has resulted in local zoning being overridden as developers build on sites that are contaminated or which have other environmental problems. Belskis noted that inclusionary zoning – which requires that all housing developments have a percentage of affordable units – would be a much more effective approach than Chapter 40B. He cited statistics from Maryland where inclusionary zoning is producing 15 times more affordable units than Massachusetts’ Chapter 40B.

Nat Fortune provided the perspective of the American Farmland Trust. He noted that in many communities in the western part of Massachusetts, agriculture is important to the economy and it protects open space. When farmland is replaced by residential development, local property taxes rise to pay for municipal services. This places a real burden on lower income rural residents. Fortune described community supported agriculture that provides income to farmers, produces fresh organic food, and gets residents of all ages involved with the land. He noted that the state’s “smart growth” law – Chapter 40R – is written to apply to more densely developed communities. Yet failure to meet these inherently urban smart growth guidelines is now being unfairly used to disqualify rural communities from receiving funding through the “APR” (Agricutural Preservation Restriction) program. Such preservation is critical because in the past two decades Massachusetts has lost nearly 20% of its farmland, threatening a major foundation of sustainable local economies.

Erica Schwartz of the Waltham Alliance to Create Housing (WATCH) described the success of the Fernald Working Group (FWG) which brought together diverse community interests to develop a vision of community-driven development for the Fernald Development Center. The Fernald Center is a 200-acre state facility for the developmentally disabled that the Division of Mental Retardation is in the process of closing. The FWG sought to develop an alternative to the prevailing mode of development in which “Waltham has been at the mercy of private developers who have pushed through large projects that have been viewed by many in the community as having a negative effect on the environment and further increasing sprawl.” The group devised a plan that includes affordable housing, open space, small business, public transit options, historic preservation, and toxic clean-up. The FWG is working with a state-created reuse committee to attempt to get some of their ideas adopted in an official reuse plan.

Waltham City Councilor George Darcy described the problems with the states fast-track auction law. This measure was passed as Outside Section 548 to the 2004 state budget. As an “Outside Section”, it was created in a backroom process without public input or recorded votes. The bill takes control over the use of surplus state land away from community representatives by eliminating the requirement for specific transfer legislation, for which local representatives were previously responsible. Instead, the auction law transfers decision-making authority to a state agency with no accountability to the communities affected by the agency decisions. The new auction process promotes sprawl, high-end housing and traffic congestion. The measure also allows the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) to sell state properties at auction with only 30 days notice, eliminating the community’s right of first refusal. Members of the audience noted that the use of outside sections to pass substantial laws without public hearings is an insult to the democratic process. Jill Stein commented that “This law would never have seen the light of day if it had been subjected to a public hearing and a recorded vote.”

John Andrews from the Massachusetts Coalition for Health Communities described alternative development concepts that could result in healthier growth. He noted that currently the most common motivation in development is to maximize profit for private real estate interests. For-profit developers often influence elected officials through campaign contributions. The need for affordable housing or greenspace, or protection of natural resources is considered only as an afterthought. For-profit developers often buy land at a bargain price and then use political connections to obtain rezonings and special permits. These multiply the value of the property several fold, with the profits being taken out of the community. One alternative to this is to utilize non-profit community development organizations that work with communities to produce viable development strategies. Then the profits from any rezonings can be used for public priorities, such as building affordable housing units. He emphasized that for larger parcels, multiple proposals should be put on the table, rather than having a single proposal from a for-profit developer.

Speakers noted the need to support some immediate legislative initiatives, including

• Repealing the fast-track auction law (Outside Section 548).
• Passing enabling legislation and home rule petitions to allow communities to preserve affordable housing endangered by “expiring use”.
• Preventing funds for the Community Preservation Act from being raided to support other programs.
• Passing legislation to require data collection and reporting on the use of affordable housing funds.
• Passing the Massachusetts Land Use Reform Act – a major reform that will bring more consistency to state planning and zoning.
• Restoring funding for the Agricultural Preservation Restriction, a program that makes farmland economically viable by purchasing permanent agricultural deed restrictions from farmers.

In conclusion, Jill Stein noted that there are win-win development solutions that result in healthy communities by achieving the needed balance of affordable housing, greenspace protection, accessible transportation and local economic development. But powerful interests seeking to exploit public resources often divide community advocates, creating unnecessary conflicts between housing and environmental proponents, and between urban, suburban and rural residents. This undermines attempts to create a unified community vision, and virtually assures that community needs will not be met. But when residents with diverse interests stand united, and insist on community-driven development, we can become more powerful than the forces arrayed against our communities. ”At the end of the day, we are partners in the realm of justice, and partners in the world of practical politics. By informing and empowering ourselves, we can make the changes that are needed to take back our future, and build the sustainable, just communities we all deserve.”


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