Presentations from CTI and NMCOG bring problems, and some solutions, into focus
After granting a common victualler license to Origin Thai Bistro, the restaurant located next to Luna Rossa, the full Select Board was joined by town staff, local agencies and members of the Tewksbury Housing Authority, Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Board for an informational housing summit.
Select Board Chair Todd Johnson opened with comments.
“This is a long overdue effort to have a discussion about housing in the town of Tewksbury — in particular, affordable housing,” said Johnson. “This board in the last couple of years has made affordable housing one of its top priorities. So we felt it was necessary to gather everyone together.”
Johnson stressed that the session was not about the MBTA Communities law, which has no affordability requirements.
Town Manager Richard Montuori pointed out that in July, when the Select Board met to talk about priorities, affordable housing was No. 1 on the list. But not all residents and elected officials are convinced of the urgency.
“I do believe there are people out there that don’t think there is a need for affordable housing,” said Montuori. “They don’t have an understanding that it does impact people in this community.”
Affordable housing is not the same as subsidized or Section 8 housing but rather refers to units that a person making a percentage of the area’s annual median income, often 80%, can pay for without exceeding 30% of his or her salary.
Median income in Tewksbury is $111,696, about 20% higher than the area average, so an individual earning $89,356 would be eligible for some units. The Tewksbury Housing Authority administers the town’s subsidized housing stock for those with very low incomes and has a 14,000 person waiting list for those units.
Why does providing affordable, midmarket homes matter? Besides the human cost of seniors not being able to downsize and recent graduates being unable to buy or rent in the community where they grew up, local employers have difficulty finding workers, especially for lower-wage jobs. When people who work in Tewksbury can’t afford to live nearby, they must commute — sometimes long distances, said the experts — which increases traffic and impacts the environment.
Invited experts from CTI, a community action and regional housing agency, began by putting the problem in perspective. While the town’s population is growing, housing production is not keeping pace. As a result, Tewksbury’s rental vacancy rate is 0%, with home vacancies at .3%.
A “healthy” rental vacancy rate is 5% to 8%, per CTI, while a 2% to 3% rate for homes allows for more price stability.
Tewksbury has $6.3 million in its housing trust fund, plus about $1 million in CPA funds available to address the problem. That’s more than most towns, but there are thousands of current residents who are spending more than 30% — and sometimes more than half — their incomes on housing.
“Tewksbury is an affluent community, and also a community with a high rate of seniors,” said Carl Howell, chief program officer at CTI.
In fact, 18% of Tewksbury residents are 65+, the highest in Greater Lowell, while the population 19 and younger is 19%, the lowest in the area. That’s reflected in decreasing enrollment in Tewksbury schools. Between 2010 and 2020, the town added about 1,200 housing units, according to Assistant Town Manager Steve Sadwick. Between 2008 and 2022, Tewksbury lost about 1,200 students in our enrollment numbers.
“In addition, Tewksbury has one of the highest home value markets in the Greater Lowell region,” said Howell. “Your service workers that are working at your local restaurants, grocery stores and such, it makes it really challenging for them given the wages that they earn to actually reside in this community.”
He also pointed out an imbalance between owner-occupied and rental: 85% of our housing stock is single-family units.
As a result, Tewksbury residents have received close to $1 million over the last two years from CTI in state and federally funded rental or mortgage assistance.
Steve Joncas, director of real estate development with Common Ground Development Corp., a nonprofit subsidiary of CTI, works with communities to help them implement their affordable housing plans and sees firsthand the issues with supply chains and financing.
“Interest rates started off at 5% on an $18 million deal, and it’s now 9%,” said Joncas. “That has a real effect on project feasibility.”
He also called out a “gobbelty-gook of alphabet soup” that goes with affordable housing funding programs at the state level.
To that end, the Healey-Driscoll Administration announced today a $4 billion plan to jumpstart housing production and affordability. The proposal contains a mix of new funding and policy changes. One big one: Allow accessory dwelling units less than 900 square feet by right throughout the state, with the ability for communities to set some reasonable restrictions.
The state estimates that this change could create more than 8,000 accessory dwelling units over five years. Healey is also directing state agencies to develop an expanded inventory of state-owned land suitable for housing.
The Local Picture
Tewksbury’s 2023 – 2027 Housing Production Plan contains a wealth of demographic and housing information. One key finding: Homeownership is increasingly out of reach for the median income earner because of a “missing middle” of properties, from larger, three- and four-bedroom apartment units to so-called “starter homes.”
As an example, the 30-unit building proposed at the MacLellan Oil site on Main St. contains only one- and two-bedroom apartments.
Housing and Economic Development Program Manager Chris Hayes and Executive Director Julie Raitt attended from NMCOG, the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, the regional planning agency for Tewksbury and surrounding communities. Hayes assisted in compiling the Housing Production Plan and said data shows that more than 1,500 Tewksbury households spend more than half of their incomes on rent or mortgage and utilities.
In Tewksbury, median rent is the second highest in the region — from 2010 to 2023, median rent in Boston went up 55%. In Tewksbury, it went up 63%.
“We really see not just the human cost on that, but also a cost in terms of employers not being able to find employees and considering moving away or not locating in our region,” said Hayes.
Planning Board member Jonathan Ciampa brought up infrastructure — 1,400 homes would add significant traffic.
“Who’s talking to the state about coming in and helping support the infrastructure necessary?” Ciampa asked.
Hayes points out that Tewksbury is hardly unique in that problem.
“Some communities have traffic concerns, some have sewer, some have schools, and we want to make sure as a region that those concerns are addressed in a holistic way,” he said. “Folks are living somewhere and they’re commuting somewhere … how can we enable folks to live near where they work to minimize those impacts?”
Montuori also offered a reality check on the role of the town’s elected boards.
“I hear this a lot, ‘What’s the mitigation going to be when we build housing?’” he said. “I guess the question I would ask is, when a private developer comes in front of us, have we ever asked for mitigation as a community? No, we don’t. We don’t.”
While the town does look to the state for that help, in the time he has been Town Manager, no private developer has provided any significant mitigation for traffic, water or sewer, said Montuori.
“They do things for their own developments,” he said. “They may throw a sidewalk in — maybe.
To that point, the new zoning bylaw voted in by Town Meeting removed the discretion from the Planning Board to allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of building sidewalks, which are a priority for residents and key in enabling people to walk rather than drive for short trips. Yet that board recently overruled the DPW’s directive on materials to be used and questioned why sidewalks should be installed on Old Boston Rd. in another pending project.
“The community needs to look at itself and say, when these developments come forward, what mitigation are we requiring them to do? What are we asking for?” said Montuori. “And I can tell you, we’ve asked for very little.”
Several elected officials called out the fact that people from the close-in Boston suburbs move to Tewksbury for the town-like feel and questioned why Tewksbury should build more units on a limited amount of land, especially given the lack of public transportation options.
Short answer from the panel: A lack of supply is a root cause of growing housing unaffordability affecting a number of ages and income levels. The 20 – 29 age group is particularly affected.
Todd Johnson closed the Q&A period by asking the assembled experts for a project recommendation.
“What is a concrete, tangible example that has made a difference, that we may consider in terms of our resources?” asked Todd Johnson. “As the town manager mentioned, we have $8 million to leverage. I think we hear that there’s a will in the room to do something.”
Raitt cited Dracut working with the Coalition for a Better Acre to convert a town-owned former school into veteran’s housing as a great example of a town/nonprofit partnership.
“And in Chelmsford, one of your neighbors, they have one of the most innovative housing authorities in the entire Commonwealth,” she said.
Chelmsford’s Housing Authority spun off a nonprofit entity that does affordable housing development. That RCAT, or Regional Capital Assistance Team, is now providing local housing authorities statewide with technical assistance and support.
“Some of the things that they did early on are worth noting,” she said. For example, the town focused on opportunities for seniors, for families and others in need of housing at very low income level, but also leveraged mixed-income development opportunities to also assist people with slightly higher incomes as well.
“This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said CIT’s Howell. “ It’s going to take some brave policy decisions, and decision-makers, to start that change.”