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Filling ‘The Missing Middle’ of Housing Is Goal of Town, NMCOG

A workshop hosted by Town Planner Alex Lowder asked how Tewksbury should meet affordability goals while serving all residents

“The missing middle,” a term coined by architect and urban designer Daniel Parolek, describes a gap in the housing types being built in many communities, including Tewksbury. It refers to a lack of what we might call starter homes — smaller single families, detached duplexes and townhouses at affordable prices.

“I’m sure as some of you have seen driving around town, a lot of the new construction is really beautiful homes, but they’re really big,” said Town Planner Alex Lowder at a recent workshop held with Chris Hayes of NMCOG. “And if we’re talking about the folks who need housing, it’s seniors, it’s folks with disabilities, it’s small families.”

Those not in the market for a $750,000-and-up home on an acre or more of land can often find a 1,000 square foot luxury apartment for several thousand per month. The lack of options in between is a problem that the town is seeking to address in light of changing demographics, a demand for walkability and less dependance on cars, and the MBTA Communities law that requires towns to zone in a way that encourages development of that missing middle.

Lowder’s working to involve the community in the planning process through a survey and a series of workshops that will extend through the summer. The goal is to build consensus on the town’s Housing Production Plan for 2023-2027 and get a handle on the new MBTA law.

Tewksbury faces affordability challenges, data shows. The median home sales price in town is $605,000, the median rent is $2,130 per month and the median household income is $111,696. A standard metric for affordability is that a household should spend no more than 30% its annual income on housing costs, including rent or mortgage and utilities. That would be about $2,800 per month.

Those who must spend more will struggle — in Tewksbury, as of 2021, 31% of households were moderately or severely cost-burdened. Rising inflation and interest rates make it likely that this number has risen. Many of those low-income families, seniors and people with disabilities are seeking subsidized housing.

“Looking at the Housing Authority waitlists is a good good way to understand the demand at the lowest end of the income scale,” said Hayes. “And Tewksbury Housing Authority has the second longest waitlist in our region. There are thousands on the list.”

Survey Says: Keep Seniors In Town
The Housing Production Plan will guide the town’s decisions on how to support creation of affordable housing, what kinds of housing development or redevelopment the town hopes to create and how to move toward a time when all kinds of families and people can afford a home that meets their needs.

“The Housing Production Plan is an excellent source for showing the state that you’re serious about housing, and therefore it qualifies you for different grant programs, different technical assistance programs, and things like that,” said Lowder.

The first step was a survey, fielded in December and January. Key themes identified by respondents include housing for veterans and young families, lower taxes, town center development, protecting open space, and separation of uses and promotion of larger commercial areas.

The No. 1 answer to an question on issues or concerns was an inability to afford rent or mortgage. Half of respondents strongly agree that the town should encourage preservation of existing homes — possibly a response to the trend of demolishing those starter homes. Sixty-one percent strongly want to help people stay in the community as they age.

Other key findings include:

  • There are a significant number of residents who make very low and extremely low incomes, and their housing needs aren’t being met.
  • Homeownership is increasingly out of reach for the median-income earner, creating concerns about fair access to housing.
  • Renters fare significantly worse than owners on access to and cost of housing.

And 40B is not the answer.

“The majority of the units in these 40B projects are market rate, so there’s a 75/25 split, and those 25 are the 80% [annual median income] folks,” said Lowder. “You have to make $80,000 a year to even get into those units.”

Another problem is incentivizing developers to build starter homes.

“If they can’t make money, they’re not going to do it,” said Lowder. “That’s where our Affordable Housing Trust Fund can come into play.”

For example, the town could use some of those funds to “buy down” units to deeper levels of affordability, or even partner with a developer. She also previously proposed converting some vacant commercial units in mixed use developments into affordable housing. That would be via a bylaw change stating that “the planning board may grant by special permit the conversion of a previously permitted commercial unit in a mixed use development to an affordable residential unit to be maintained in perpetuity.”

That article will be presented at May Town Meeting and will help solve the problem of empty storefronts while adding affordable units.

What’s the Goal?
At the workshop, Lowder shared a proposed housing vision for Tewksbury:

“Tewksbury is a community that supports a full life cycle: Children can choose to start their own households in Tewksbury and older adults can age in Tewksbury. Its housing will be inclusive, with options for all, regardless of race, age, origin, disability status, or income. The community will have a mix of housing types focused on providing high quality of life that is affordable to residents, including but not limited to underrepresented housing types: small single-family structures on small lots, duplexes, triplexes, and adaptively reused structures. Tewksbury neighborhoods will have multimodal connections, with good access to jobs and services including active transportation options and transit whenever possible.”

Besides the use of Affordable Housing Trust Funds, strategies to achieve that goal include:

  • Working with the state to identify appropriate Tewksbury State Hospital areas that could be redeveloped for affordable housing, with a goal to create mixed housing, village-like developments.
  • Evaluate possible adaptive reuse projects and identify possible barriers to those projects, including conversion of commercial units in mixed use developments to affordable residential units.
  • Evaluate allowing two-family dwellings throughout the R40 district.
  • Research and identify areas in residential districts with primarily smaller lots than those zoning districts allow, evaluate feasibility of reducing minimum lot sizes in those areas, and implement reductions if feasible.
  • Investigate strengthening the Family Suite bylaw as to ADU (accessory development unit) development of by-right ADUs and expanding and removing barriers to ADU developments.

The MBTA Communities law is yet another challenge that could involve building another buzzword, “complete neighborhoods,” that is, more multifamily housing near transit, downtowns, jobs and services. That would add to a more diverse housing stock.

“The important bit here is that we need to keep having these conversations,” said Lowder. “Affordable housing crises are not going to go away. We need to keep talking about them. Building consensus on how to meet those needs is incredibly important.”

Download the presentation below.

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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