There has been a lot of recent discussion about the “40 B” proposal to develop 157 apartment units along School Street on the far side of Route 128. This is a private development with a quarter of its units set aside as affordable being undertaken without public funding or involvement. Manchester has limited control because State law stipulates that towns with less than 10% of its occupied housing stock as affordable are open to 40 B developments.
Because of the Town’s past inability to create enough community housing, the project can move forward through a State approval process with minimal oversight by the Town. The Board of Selectman is hoping to make the process “friendly” and to negotiate some aspects of the project; and has asked The Manchester Affordable Housing Trust for its comments.
The Trust at its last meeting identified three opportunities for improving the project to better meet community needs. First, the 40 units designated as “affordable” should be truly affordable. As an example, the developer proposes that two-bedroom units be limited to households earning no more than 80% of the area median income which means an income limit of $ 77,000 (for two people) and a rent of $1,898 per month for a two-bedroom unit. The Trust advocates that the income limit for these units be reduced to no more than 60% of AMI or $61,440, and a monthly rent of $1,460. Second, the project should use building systems and appliances with the highest energy efficiency ratings and consider other energy reducing strategies to assure that utility costs be as low as possible. And third, local residents or workers should be given preference for the affordable units to the extent possible.
The Trust wants to remind everyone that there is a severe lack of diversity of housing in Manchester, and that the plan to develop Shingle Hill is an opportunity to take a step toward meeting local housing needs, but will not solve all of the town’s housing challenges.
To give some perspective on the housing situation, the latest draft of the Town’s Housing Production Plan states the following:
“…there remains a very vulnerable population living in Manchester with limited financial means. In 2018 about 240 or 12% of all households earned less than $25,000 including 36% of all renters.”
“The number of those 65 years of age and older grew by 64% between 1980 and 2013, from 644 to 1,056 residents, while the population as a whole increased by only 4.4%.” “Of the 229 senior renter households in town, 90 or 39% were spending too much (on housing) and 35 or 26% were spending more than half of their income on housing.
The Plan concludes that the first priority for the Town is the creation of more rental housing. “There is… a pressing need for rental units for those with lower-paying jobs, many in the area’s service economy, who are encountering serious difficulty finding housing that they can afford in Manchester. Because state housing subsidy funds are almost exclusively directed to rental housing and because the Town places the highest priority on meeting the housing needs of its most financially vulnerable citizens, this Housing Plan identifies the creation of new rental units as the top priority for both seniors and families.”
Will the proposed 40 B development address this need? Additional apartment units will certainly help the town address the shortage of rental housing. However, there are concerns with the current proposal for Shingle Hill, including potential impact on wetlands and water supply, design of the complex, the proposed number of units, and the cost of town services to name a few. Assuming these can be satisfactorily addressed, (perhaps a big assumption) there are some aspects of the proposal that should also be taken into consideration.
If we could look beyond the legitimate concerns of the Manchester Essex Conservation Trust, it is hard to imagine a better site in terms of impact on the Town. Think of the reaction to this kind of project along Bridge Street or Summer Street. Perhaps a better solution would involve separate smaller buildings at different locations in town, but the logistics of that, including lack of available land as well as financial feasibility would make it nearly impossible.
There is a lot of worry about the impact of this kind of project on town services and especially the schools. There is no denying that there will be more students. However, with mostly one and two-bedroom units, the impact on the schools will likely be limited. Further, enrollment in the school has been dropping in recent years, and a major cost to the Town is paying for the school’s construction. As the population of the Town continues to age, we will be generating fewer students- a trend that will continue unless we can attract younger families.
The proposed development will not by itself solve the Town’s housing problems. It will offer alternative choices for empty nesters and young singles to live in town. Nevertheless, the proposed rents are still relatively high—$3,500 for many units, and we hope to negotiate with the sponsor to lower rents for at least the designated affordable units.
We still have to provide housing opportunities for seniors with fixed incomes, for town workers who can’t afford housing in town, and for younger start-up households (often the grown children of families who have lived here for years if not generations).
Given limited funds from government sources, there are few options to create community housing that is truly affordable, and we need to leverage construction cost and operating expenses, as well as generate tax revenue, by packaging units with restricted rents with market rate units.
We are at a point of reckoning. We have approved the cost of new schools which we have to pay for over the next several decades. We have deferred maintenance on our utility systems, and now have to repair and replace large portions of them. Town services require workers, equipment and facilities, all of which need to be funded yearly. We have to prepare for increases in sea level as the climate continues to warm. To deal with these varied and necessary expenses, we need to either expand our tax base or accept the burden of higher and higher property taxes.
At the same time, we have to encourage more diverse community housing to keep our community thriving and vibrant. We have zoned ourselves into a box of high-end single-family housing. The result of this is that we have essentially forfeited control over this 40 B development, leaving the Town little room to negotiate with the developers of the Shingle Hill property. And as the Housing Production Plan illustrates, we will still face a shortage of community affordable housing to serve our population and work force.
The solution to these issues has to be comprehensive.
It has to involve a plan for all the land that is north of 128, not just Shingle Hill.
It has to include a plan to redevelop the public housing sites such as Newport Park and The Plains. These properties with mostly senior tenants are funded by the State and operated by the Manchester Housing Authority. They do not meet current building standards and the State does not have the ability to fund much needed improvements. These properties have enormous potential if only we can figure out how to finance the cost of needed improvements and maintain them without relying on local taxes. With that in mind, the Housing Authority and Affordable Housing Trust have jointly enlisted a development consultant to assess alternative redevelopment strategies including the possibility of adding new units to help address the town’s community housing needs.
It has to include a loosening of restrictions on the creation of Accessory Dwelling Units in existing single-family homes. These would create at least a few additional units and in-law apartments in existing homes with reasonable rents, and would have no discernable impact on neighborhood character. They would also provide much needed income to local homeowners.
It even involves updating the Town’s zoning regulations to encourage well placed and designed housing in character with its neighborhoods.
These ideas need to be carefully reviewed with public participation, and will take years to implement. None of these alone will solve all the shortfalls in the current housing inventory of Manchester, but together they can make a significant difference. It’s a lot for the Town to deal with over the next couple of years. But do we have a reasonable alternative?