Toward affordable— and attainable—housing in Wellesley

The public’s initial reaction to proposed new housing developments or zoning rules in Wellesley is often extreme, with people either embracing the potential for more affordable units wherever they land or expressing fear about the traffic, impact on schools, and other concerns that increased housing density may bring.

The town has made strides in recent years to better manage and boost diversity of its housing stock without upending neighborhoods. One of its latest efforts is undertaking an affordable housing market study to assess demand and needs for rental and occupant-owned properties.

The reconstituted Wellesley Housing Development Corp.(WHDC)—which almost was converted to an Affordable Housing Trust last year—has as its mission “to sponsor and assist in the development of affordable housing opportunities for persons of low and moderate income in the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts in order to implement the Town’s Affordable Housing Policy.” Its funds come largely via the Community Preservation Committee as well as through sources such as inclusionary zoning payments.

Shaping the study

The WHDC has hired consultancy Barrett Planning Group to deliver a study this spring designed to give the town fresh data and possible recommendations to use going forward. This could help to inform how the town seeks to develop land (say the North 40…remember that?) and how it negotiates with developers of private projects (like the one-time 40B developments at 148 Weston Rd., and Delanson Circle, which have been scaled down and will deliver just a handful of affordable units instead of the more than two dozen envisioned between them early on).

The study has been the main topic of the Housing Development Corp.’s Jan. 20 and Feb. 17 meetings, recordings of which are available from Wellesley Media. Updates on the study by the consultancy will be regular features of upcoming monthly meetings. The town last did a study like this 15 years ago, and it found a need for affordable housing by both seniors and families.

Holly Grace, a WHDC member who works for a nonprofit affordable housing developer, said during the Jan. 20 meeting that she anticipates the new study will find that “there is intense and incredible demand for affordable housing” and could be useful not just for WHDC, but for other boards in town involved in housing decisions.

WHDC member Robert Goldkamp said he’d like to see the study include information about what percentage of people who work in Wellesley can’t afford to live here. “That’s really the reason I’m on the committee. I don’t like the idea that people who work in the town can’t live in the town,” he said.

Fellow WHDC member Marjorie Freiman added that the town is challenged not only with affordable housing, but “attainable” and “workforce” housing, as seen during pre- and post-surveys related to the town’s 2018 housing production plan. The  town put that plan together to get on the path toward having at least 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable (it has exceeded that mark) and to defend against unfriendly 40B housing developments.

Depending upon how you define attainable or workforce housing, it might not fall within the 50% or 80% of area median income range for affordable housing—it could be 100% or 120% of that benchmark, and around here that’s still not cheap. It’s the sort of housing stock, however, that still would provide more diversity of options as well as different stepping stones, especially if vouchers or other subsidies can be applied. An advocacy group is also pushing for the town to adopt rules allowing for accessory dwelling units (a.k.a., in-law apartments) and an Annual Town Meeting article addresses that topic this spring.

“We really want to have that spectrum to transition people the whole way,” said Town Executive Director Meghan Jop.

Using the study

The Jan. 20 WHDC meeting was largely devoted to Barrett Planning Group’s Judy Barrett interviewing the Housing Development Corp.’s members on what they want the study to focus on and do for them. She has experience working with the town on its housing production plan as well as 40B and 40R projects. While well versed on the town, she will be seeking fresh information from local realtors, developers, and property managers during the survey process.

Barrett Group isn’t delivering a strategic plan, but hopes to provide both data and insights into possible housing-related opportunities for the town. Among these could be efforts that sync with Wellesley being designated by the state as an MBTA community for its proximity to commuter rail and green line trains—a designation that requires the town to adhere to rules around having the areas where it has train stations zoned for multifamily housing.

During the Feb. 17 meeting, Barrett Planning’s Elizabeth Haney shared some of the early demographic data collected. The median income in Wellesley is about $200,000, and the median household size is two, she said. (Recent Census data pointed out by a reader shows the average household size being closer to three, but that is the average, not the median.) Haney’s research looks at the prevalence of people working in town who make much less, though the numbers are blurry given we’re talking in some cases about part-time town workers and college students. Barrett Planning has also examined future population trends based on a handful of sources, including the census (Wellesley’s population is close to 29,000 based on the latest census, and the opening of new 40B, 40R, and former 40B developments will boost that number by hundreds or more).

One mind-bending stat is that the median single-family home price is $1.655M, which if you were putting down 20% would be $331K, and then you’d need to be pulling in $279K a year to handle monthly mortgage payments not exceeding a third of your income. This raises a very big question about what “attainable” means in Wellesley, Haney said.

Executive Director Jop says attainable for those downsizing from homes selling at $1.6M or higher might be looking for something in the $700K-$1M range. They’re not looking for the sorts of $2M condos hitting the market in town. For first-time homebuyers, they’re probably seeking homes in the $600K-$800K range, but “that stock does not exist,” Jop says.

The changing nature of new homeowners with kids in town is reflected in dropping school enrollment figures, especially at the elementary school level, resulting in Wellesley soon closing Upham Elementary School. People aren’t moving in with young kids set to go all the way through the school system. Rather, many of these Wellesley newcomers tend to be trading up from properties elsewhere and have kids entering the school system at higher grade levels.

“I think from the data, first time home buying is not possible in Wellesley…,” Haney said, noting that you essentially need to sell a house to buy one in Wellesley

A ‘daunting’ task

Freiman added that “if we really want to increase diversity—economic and racial and everything else—these numbers do not work in our favor and we have to be honest about what we can really achieve and what the community will really accept in terms of density and housing expansion. This is really daunting…”

As some said during the meeting, density must be increased to expand affordable housing, either by taking advantage of existing zoning or rezoning areas (the 40R project at Wellesley Office Park is bringing close to 90 affordable apartments to town). Thanks to its 2021 Housing Choice Designation, the town is eligible for more grants and funding through programs like MassWorks and Complete Streets that could give it more options. The town also needs to approach its strategy from a regional perspective, understanding that it might not be able to address all needs within Wellesley itself.

Freiman circled back to an earlier discussion during the meeting about building affordable vs. attainable housing. “I think the language we use is really important…” Freiman said, referencing an earlier mention by Haney about how “attainable” can be used as a euphemism for “affordable.”

“I think of attainable as… what is attainable for whom. For people who work in Wellesley, a certain category of employee,” Freiman said. “Because if you say attainable and you mean affordable and you don’t explain it, there are people who are really afraid of affordable housing and they will just get their backs up and push back and object to it if they don’t understand who we are trying to build housing for.”

Member Mike Nilles agreed, and said: “That may be the majority of our work, in education, and explaining what these words mean.”

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