The Way I See It: Just When You Thought We Dodged a Bad Idea, 40B Is Back

While the original intent behind the law was to help citizens, 40B hasn’t always been used to further a greater good.

We are not the only community facing the 40B crisis head-on. Wellesley residents made these signs to highlight their concerns.

Editor’s Note: This is the first column from Methuen resident Dan Shibilia, a candidate for Mayor in the 2019 city election.

Dan Shibilia

There’s a protest brewing and it’s all about affordable housing. Well, more accurately, it’s about the placement of this housing and the lack of any identifiable plan to revitalize Methuen’s failing business community.

This protest is brought to you by the Economic Development Department and Chapter 40B.

The “affordable housing program,” otherwise known as 40B, has the ability to insight rage in so many. Whether stemming from lack of a clear understanding of 40B or the PTSD associated with the recent battle that is once again coming up for public hearing, the rage is real.

You may recall the 156-unit apartment complex situated on the 7.87 acres across from the Loop bordering Milk Street from not too many months ago. Well, it’s coming back to the Zoning Board.

On December 3, the Eagle Tribune ran the first of two public notices alerting the public of the December 18 hearing taking place at City Hall to discuss a Modification of Permit for the planned mega-complex situated in our largest and struggling commercial district.

Residential units in a business district sounds like a great idea. What business owner wouldn’t want a centrally-based clientele? After all, it’s the same design being utilized all over the country. Most notably to us, it’s the layout being used up the road in Salem for the Tuscan Village and used in Lynnfield at the Market Place.

So what’s the problem?

It starts with a fundamental understanding of 40B and progresses into a short-sighted economic plan for the community or lack thereof.

What is 40B? Chapter 40B of the Massachusetts General Laws allows developers to bypass local planning and zoning regulations if at least 20 percent of the units to be developed are deemed “affordable.”

The city is left with little power to deny a development under 40B if less than 10 percent of the homes in the community are not designated affordable. Methuen is currently under that 10 percent threshold.

It’s important to clarify that affordable does not mean low-income. The definition of affordable is fluid and changes based on the community’s median household income.

For perspective, the household median income in Massachusetts is $77,385. A family of four would qualify for this affordable housing if they earn no more than $61,908.

Methuen is slightly lower with a $73,492 median household income making the limit $58,794. Pricing the homes and apartments is a complicated process but an over-simplified view would be that the monthly payment has to be no more than 30 percent of the household income, inclusive of taxes and fees.

This is why the prices are much lower than normal. Buyers are required to be qualified through the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

This sounds like a good thing to have for residents. So, why the outrage?

While the original intent behind 40B was to help first-time, low-income buyers, seniors and renters stay in communities they would otherwise be priced out of, 40B hasn’t always been used to further a greater good.

It could be argued that developers and city officials work to meet 40B requirements for projects that would otherwise not be approved. At the same time, the city develops other lands with more expensive homes to drive up the median household income.

Another concern is the influx of new residents on already crowded streets, schools and infrastructure. And the stigma associated with low-income housing is what people notice first. Simple projections would suggest that with 156 apartments, assuming most are couples and some with children, the city could easily expect 300 new residents. This is a lot of new traffic entering into Pleasant Valley during your morning commute.

This brings us to the short-sighted economic plan brought to you by years of mismanagement and siloed decision making.

Over the past decade, Methuen has focused almost exclusively on residential growth. More specifically, the focus has been on 55+ communities. Homes in these communities have been priced well above average for our community.

The city views them as cash cows in terms of return on their tax dollars, and this is part of the reason they’ve been pushed on the community. These complexes have their own snow, trash and recycling removal. Some even use their own water. They don’t use the schools. It sounds like a great deal for the city. What’s the downside?

The current operating budget for the city is over 160 million dollars. The cost of doing business increases every year. This cost doesn’t even include the aging infrastructure that is in need of repair after years of neglect.

Methuen, through many faults of its own, has failed to attract or has lost commercial and industrial businesses. So the money to cover the budget is primarily generated from property tax. Ideally, 20 to 25 percent of our tax revenue should come from commerical and industrial property. Currently, Methuen hovers around 12 percent and it’s dropping. This means more of the burden falls on us homeowners.

With the lack of open space courtesy of the booming residential construction platform launched by City Hall over recent years, the city lacks adequate space to develop new commercial and/or industrial areas.

As businesses leave the city for tax-free Salem, N.H. or growing Lawrence, that tax payment goes with them. The city has done nothing to attract new businesses or put Methuen on the map.

That money needs to come from somewhere. This, in part, is why our property tax rates increase as much as they do year over year.

On almost 8 acres of land adjacent to our biggest commercial district and one of the city’s largest taxpayers, the City should be looking to develop a new space to complement the Loop. An arts district with a performance theater and upscale restaurants is one great idea.

Instead, the past two administrations have lead Methuen down a dark path putting us years behind neighboring communities. If Methuen doesn’t find a way to change this 40B project into something that complements the Loop and expands the tax base, we are looking at a cloud this city will not escape for years to come.

Now, enter the new administration. All eyes are on you.