Two proposed 40B housing developments near Wellesley’s Sprague Elementary School have inspired neighbors to form a grassroots outfit called Our Affordable Wellesley designed to give them a stronger collective voice regarding the future of their surroundings. The movement isn’t limited to their neighborhood, however, as it also takes into consideration 6 other such “Summer of 40B” projects being proposed across town— plus those that might yet have been conceived.
The underlying philosophy of the group is to make Wellesley housing more affordable to diverse groups, including younger and older demographics; make it more possible for employees of the town to live in the community they serve; gain consensus on the appropriateness of select town-owned properties so the town can proactively issue planned affordable-housing requests for proposals; design affordable housing structures that make new residents feel welcome and integrated with their respective communities; align its vision for affordable housing with groups dedicated to school capacity/tax base concerns. Organizers say they want to see Wellesley support “the true spirit of 40B,” which they say amounts to helping people and not being all about profits.
Pete Buhler, a spokesman for the group who is feeling squeezed by proposed 40B projects at 680 Worcester St. and 16 Stearns Rd. in his neighborhood, says, “One of the nice byproducts of being under the duress of 40B for a year is that the neighborhood has been able to convene and talk about affordable housing quite a bit… and it turns out we have some admirably passionate people that have looked past their own protective instincts and focused instead on the larger issues surrounding affordable housing in our town and how we can help everyone involved — future residents, current residents, the town and the state.”
Buhler and others directly affected by 40B proposals have been regulars during Citizen Speak portions of Planning and Selectmen meetings in town to make heard their concerns.
Affordable housing developments “should not be about terrorizing current residents and should be about respecting future residents and not treating them like chickens in chicken coops without yards when the rest of the neighborhood would have them,” he says. “My biggest concern is that when we don’t go out and make it happen like that and it happens to us, it’s done in the name of profit by developers who don’t have a real interest in our town.”
For their part, developers have said residents often have misconceptions about their intentions, and that their projects are a fit with goals outlined in the town’s Comprehensive Plan to boost affordable housing stock.
WELLESLEY HOUSING PRODUCTION PLAN IN THE WORKS
Buhler and others have been supportive of town efforts to create a Housing Production Plan that would give Wellesley more control over housing development here, though they want to see it much sooner than later, in part because they see town resources being drained handling current 40B proposals on a case by case basis. They describe the current situation as “a crisis.”
Residents acknowledge that getting to the state mandated 10% of housing stock being affordable won’t be easy for Wellesley, but they’re optimistic that having a formal plan in place will put the town on that path by showing the state that it is doing its best to hit key thresholds. This could grant Wellesley “safe harbor” needed to fend off 40B proposals it deems unfriendly.
Town officials regret that a Housing Production Plan isn’t already in place, but point to other efforts Wellesley has made to increase affordable housing availability (inclusionary zoning, for instance). They’re trying to highlight those accomplishments more in communications with the state.
Planning officials, which have indicated an interested in working with Our Affordable Wellesley, have encouraged residents to make their voices heard not just at Planning meetings, but also at Selectmen meetings.
There could soon be opportunities for residents to appeal to the state as well on 40B issues. Wellesley State Rep. Alice H. Peisch, who says several bills have been filed on the topic, ranging from the establishment of a commission to review 40B to bills that would make specific amendments (as of early this month, no hearings had yet been set on these).
AIMING FOR TOWNWIDE SUPPORT
While Our Affordable Wellesley’s formation has been sparked by events on and near Stearns Road, the idea is to involve residents across town, regardless of whether 40B projects are nearby.
The group’s mission is to:
*Educate residents on issues that surround affordable housing in Wellesley, such as planned vs. hostile 40Bs.
*Elevate issues of concern and achieve greater town consensus prior to town meetings and other meetings.
Buhler knows conversations won’t be easy.
“People have different opinions,” he says. “Some folks want to build a monstrous facility for affordable housing on the North 40 [off of Weston Road], some people would like to do it on the Tailby Lot [near Wellesley Square train station], and we understand and appreciate when that conversation comes up… it will be tough. And that’s where we’ll need to compromise.”
Buhler has seen other communities, such as Medfield, work up Housing Production Plans that have put them in a position of strength in responding to 40B proposals. He’s hopeful that Our Affordable Wellesley will be able to provide a model
“We’re working under the assumption that all these entities, meaning the state, town, residents, future residents and friendly developers, could all be happy,” he says. “Right now they’re not.”