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OP-ED: Watertown Square Zoning Needs to Do More for Affordability

This op-ed by the Housing for All Watertown Steering Committee appeared in the Watertown News

Just about everyone agrees on the need for more affordable housing in Watertown. It’s one of the biggest challenges faced by our neighbors today. Families can’t find space to grow, older residents can’t downsize, working- and middle-class families are being forced out. There isn’t enough housing overall — but, in particular, there isn’t nearly enough affordable housing.

The Watertown Square redesign process offers an incredible opportunity to encourage more dedicated affordable homes in our city. But to make that happen over the coming decade, to actually see deed-restricted affordable housing get built, we need to plan for it today.

Zoning sets the limits on what’s possible. In order to build more deed-restricted affordable housing in Watertown Square, our new Area Plan must set the right conditions through zoning. 

In many ways, the current proposal is a step in the right direction. It allows more homes to be built overall, includes some incentives for affordable development, and focuses development in a dense, vibrant, public transit–connected neighborhood. This is a solid basis for Watertown’s continued growth and vitality.

However, the proposal’s affordable development incentives are, frankly, weak sauce. The current proposal will result in minimal, if any, additional affordable housing beyond what’s required through Watertown’s mandate that 15% of units in new developments be dedicated as affordable. The Steering Committee at Housing for All Watertown have three recommendations to strengthen our affordable housing bonuses in the Square.

1) Bonuses have to give affordable housing developers a competitive advantage over market rate developers

In a nutshell, developers decide how much they want to pay for a property based on the total value of the units they can build there. Since market-rate developers charge high prices, they can pay more money per new unit. Affordable housing developers — often nonprofits — will get less in return for each unit, so they can’t pay as much for the same property. 

Many cities offer height and density bonuses to affordable housing developers to make up for the disadvantage. It allows more units on the same piece of property, basically, by letting the building be taller. But there are “bonuses” and there are bonuses. If we genuinely want more affordable housing to be built over the next decade, we need to give meaningful bonuses to affordable developments.

The current proposed Square plan allows one additional floor of height if half of the units in a development or more are deed-restricted affordable housing. This isn’t enough to make a substantial difference. Affordable developments will too often lose out to market-rate developments. It won’t create new housing opportunities for residents who need them most.

Height and density bonuses should be proportional to the percentage of deed-restricted affordable units in a development, with a minimum set at 50 percent of units. This would be a massive leg up over market-rate and it would further incentivize affordability. It would let developments that are 50 percent affordable get a 50 percent height and density bonus over the baseline, 80 percent affordable developments get an 80 percent bonus, and 100 percent affordable developments get a 100 percent bonus.

There are not many properties that would be a good fit for a majority affordable housing development — and before it can be developed, the owner has to want to sell the property in the first place. But when one does eventually come up, we need to ensure that the incentives are in place for a transformational project, to serve the community members who need it most.

2) Any bonuses must be offered by right

In our conversations with affordable housing developers, the most consistent feedback we hear is the importance of predictability. Affordable developers piece together funding from grants, subsidies, tax credits, and loans. Each of these has a different deadline, all of them are necessary — so there’s no time to repeatedly strike out on properties or have projects get delayed in the approval process.

The current Square proposal grants affordable housing bonuses by special permit only. Affordable housing developers may simply not consider properties in Watertown, as a result. Special permits can mire projects in delays. The process also creates a not-insignificant risk that projects will be killed due to arbitrary things like interpersonal conflicts and biases. Special permits, in effect, prevent affordable projects from being built.

By-right development with site plan review — in which the project will be allowed as long as all our zoning and building regulations are met — provides the crucial element of predictability. All affordable bonuses should be allowed by-right.

3) Bonuses should not be restricted near residential zones

The current proposal restricts affordable development bonuses “within a certain distance of one or two-family residential districts.” These so-called “buffer zones” are a common tool for planners. They guard residential neighborhoods from the harms that come from highly disruptive or potentially harmful uses — such as heavy industry or biotech.

Housing is not highly disruptive or harmful. We urge City leaders and the Square planning team to make affordable housing bonuses available throughout as much of the plan area as possible, including the transitional areas between lively thoroughfares like Main Street and quieter residential neighborhoods.

Planning documents are statements of values. The story that the proposed plan tells is one where we let families, residents, and seniors who love this community fall victim to the ongoing housing crisis. That’s clearly not the goal. It’s not what residents, over and over, have said that they wanted either.

This is our chance to rewrite the script. We urge the city leadership and the Watertown Square planning team to seize this opportunity to make affordable housing a reality in our community.

Steering Committee, Housing for All Watertown

Rita Colafella, Sam Ghilardi, Daniel Pritchard, Josh Rosmarin, Jacky van Leeuwen

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