A few thoughts about our year in Hamilton: part 2

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Good evening.

After the Hamilton Board of Selectmen meeting on May 1, 2017 Harborlight Community Partners (HCP) has received numerous requests to address some key items raised in that meeting and over the last year and a half. This is the second of two short pieces meant to be our public response (first piece) While this is in no way a comprehensive explanation, we hope it will provide clarity on our perspective and next steps.

Technical Concerns:

Questions of water supply/quality, drainage, septic treatment, frontage, traffic, landscape screening, lighting and many other very legitimate questions. How can these be dealt with in a safe, effective, and contextually sensitive manner?

HCP values contextually sensitive development and will do everything we can within our power to address such concerns so as long as the solutions are aligned with our mission and the project remains viable. Solutions sometimes are as simple as reorienting a building, using special light fixtures or heights, moving driveways, honoring environmental buffer zones, using enhanced water treatment and conservation equipment, and changing design.

We are eager to address genuine concerns over technical matters; however, we have no interest in wasting valuable time and effort addressing disingenuous concerns which are merely tools to obstruct housing progress.

Concerns about the Size or Style of Housing:

Questions about height, set back distances, building massing and layout, and type—apartments vs. attached townhouses vs. single family homes.

Even though we are not required to do so, HCP consistently seeks to remain under the height limit for a single-family house as well as outside the buffer zones and setbacks. Smaller housing developments cost more to build; therefore, should HCP need to increase revenue to offset legal fees brought by opponents, we may be forced to increase the height and size of the project.

We often hear that the “ideal” community is made up of only single family homes and that any other style of housing will somehow mar the aesthetics of a town. It is not possible to meet the Town’s housing goals of 200+ or regional and local needs without using some multi-unit structures. It has been mentioned lately that in general the community would prefer a diffusion of 20-40 unit projects so there appears to be support for modest multi family housing in the abstract. However, this strategy assumes that 5-10 different neighborhoods would need to host a building to meet the goals without any abutter appeals. While HCP is willing to do this but based on the last year of experience it seems very unlikely that 5-10 neighborhoods would be found. HCP is committed to creating buildings with complimentary style and materials to those in the host community, to create a structure that any community will be proud of. We would never compromise the physical character of a town with a poorly designed or ill-fitting building; to do so would stigmatize potential residents of these homes and create wider resentment undermining residents’ welcome into the community. That, too, would be incongruous with our missional goals. We believe that a multi-family building, well designed and located, does not detract from the community style.

Concerns about Property Values and Real Estate Taxes:

HCP is sympathetic to the fear that affordable housing could impact impacting a major family asset. We respect that people are truly concerned about the potential loss of wealth if a home depreciates in value but we believe that studies of housing value neighboring affordable developments prove these fears are unfounded (see “On the Ground: 40B Developments Before and After” by Tufts University).  Local data from Larch Row in Wenham or near Bearskin Neck in Rockport also support the finding that affordable housing development does not negatively impact property value.

Some have expressed concern that because HCP is a non-profit it will not pay property taxes resulting in a burden to the Town. HCP pays property taxes on all its sites. Please link HERE for more information.

Concerns about the “Kinds of People” who live in Affordable Housing:

HCP is willing to work with communities to support some measure of local preference within the guidelines allowed by the Department of Housing and Community Development and consistent with the Town’s support of the project. Local preference would not be made available if a project is appealed. At the same time, questions about the “kinds of people” who live in affordable housing require several points in response.

First, some have suggested HCP develop only senior housing, believing that seniors pose less of a threat, or cost, to the community than others but we believe good neighbors can be found among people of any age. HCP will not pursue the creation of 200 units of affordable housing solely dedicated to senior housing because affordable housing is needed by our neighbors in all stages of life.

Second, concerns about the impact on the school system have been voiced on more than one occasion. Because we are proposing a mix of senior and family housing, we believe some children would participate in the local school system and that this would be a benefit both to new students and those currently enrolled in local schools. Children of families that would qualify for HCP housing are no different from children already living in Town: Some are gifted, others are average; some have unique needs, others unique talents. Such children would hardly create blight on the school system. On the contrary, we believe that offering children the opportunity to participate in quality public schools provides the chance to change their lives and the lives of their family members for generations to come.

Third, we have heard from some Hamilton residents thinly veiled concerns of the “threat” that affordable housing could bring to the town not only economic diversity but also ethnic diversity. As an organization, HCP is committed to non-discrimination in housing. We would hope that neighbors would share similar values. Families of varied ethnicities and incomes who may live in this housing seek the same goals of current residents: a lovely community, safe place to raise children, schools in which children can blossom and thrive, a community of neighbors who support and care about each other. There is little that separates families and seniors who would seek this housing and those who currently enjoy this community. In the words of the poet May Angelou “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” We believe that that the presence of people from a variety of backgrounds does not weaken but strengthens the character of a community.

Fourth, we have heard concerns that those who qualify for affordable housing could negatively impact the community. HCP often chooses to provide housing at the 60% area median income (AMI) level. That means that for 2017, for example, the income of a household of four people would be $62,040; for a single person, $43,440. To have units counted toward 40B, the state requires housing targeted at least to those with incomes below 80% AMI: for a family of four, $82,720, and for single person, $57,920. Those eligible for HCP housing would include many of the town’s new teachers, school and town clerical staff, staff at local markets and restaurants, people who care for your children or elderly parents, who cut your grass, care for your horses, and keep your homes in good repair.

We are firmly committed to the idea that income—whether high, medium, or low—is no measure of character.

We expect that most residents of Hamilton would agree. We know, intrinsically, and believe the people of Hamilton do as well, that those with less income are not a threat to you, your children, or your community. We suggest that if one holds such a belief, it says more of the character of one who holds it than it does of any potential resident of affordable housing.

Last, in the course of the past 14 months, it has been said more than once that we should not build affordable housing in Hamilton because future residents will be ill-treated and ostracized by their neighbors. We encourage you as a community to examine that sentiment. Any ill-treatment of neighbors is hardly due to the moral failing of the new resident. We believe people of the Town of Hamilton are better than that.

In Conclusion

HCP believes that the Town of Hamilton will address the real housing need in its Housing Production Plan, work toward its 40B commitment, and participate in doing its part, as other communities have, on meeting the needs of the region (see Unlocking the Commonwealth for more info).

HCP clearly wants to partner with the Town of Hamilton to create 200+ affordable housing units in Town over the next 10-20 years. Were we not so committed, we would not have invested so much time and resources in this process. HCP did not have to do so. Because of state requirements, HCP could have chosen a very different path that involved more speed, less community involvement, and much larger structures. Instead, we consistently strive to support an effort that will create housing which is contextually sensitive in Hamilton, financially viable, and missional consistent for HCP.

HCP does plan to pursue a first project in the near term. We will evaluate the three projects originally proposed by the HAHT to the Board of Selectmen.

Regarding the sites recently considered by the AHT and BOS: it is unlikely HCP would do anything with the Gordon-Conwell site in the near term, as it requires significant technical evaluation work (which will take more time), but it is possible in the future. We are seriously looking at 13 Essex Street and Longmeadow Way as the most likely locations for a first project. We would much prefer to partner with the Town to do smaller projects (i.e. 25-50 units) at either location, with the majority of the site used for other purposes such as a public park, historic preservation, or school use. However, this can only be done if there are other uses for the portion of the land not used for housing and if abutters agree not to appeal a smaller housing building. Threats of appeals will result in a proposal of a larger number of units necessary to cover legal fees. As this becomes clearer in the short term, we will provide additional information as soon as we are able.

We waited for 14 months after committing to wait for 3 months because we hoped for something greater and of more value than any one project. We hoped that Hamilton could be a leader, a model community showing the State that a small affluent community could proactively figure out how to create affordable housing that would be supported in Town. We still believe this is possible. We have met many nice folks in town who are supportive of affordable housing in theory. Now is the time to take these good intentions and turn them into a modest but steady flow of actual housing creation that is economically accessible to workers and seniors. This is the time to show good faith, be a model community, and move collectively toward that first project.

If you have any questions about our motive, intent, experience, next steps or anything else about us please feel free to reach out to me, Andrew DeFranza, Executive Director of Harborlight Community Partners, at 978-922-1305 x 207 or adefranza@harborlightcp.org. I am also happy to talk in person at your convenience.

Here’s to a bright future in Hamilton!



Andrew DeFranza
Harborlight Community Partners