Good idea, bad execution: Repeal Chapter 40B
by Barbara Anderson

The Salem News
Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Nov. 2, besides the tax issues, we have to vote on Question 2, which covers so many things that don't make sense to me.

I won't go into all the complexities of Chapter 40B, which Question 2 repeals. You can read the red voter information booklet you should have received in the mail by now.

Simply explained, this state law allows developers to bypass local zoning ordinances in communities that don't have "enough" (defined as at least 10 percent of total housing stock) "affordable" housing.

One person's "affordable" is another's impossible dream, however, and I'm not clear on how government tells the difference.

For some reason government's attempt to support "affordable housing" reminds me of Fannie Mae, which almost destroyed the economy by helping people "afford" homes they couldn't pay for.

Anyhow, my five-room cottage in Marblehead was barely affordable for my then-husband and me in 1974 when we bought it for $34,000. I certainly couldn't afford to buy it or anything else in this town today.

Property taxes make a home even less affordable. As some people who advocate overrides suggest, perhaps some residents really can't afford Marblehead and should move; this attitude may partly explain the defeat of 10 overrides last spring.

Anyhow, again, the reason I'm ambivalent on Question 2 is that we have to decide which government entity we want to control our alleged property rights the state or the city/town.

Twelve years ago I had just one bathroom; it was on its own level, halfway up the stairs to the second floor with its two bedrooms. My mother talked me into adding a ground-floor bath.

I was "allowed" by local zoning to add the bath because there was enough room on both sides of my house. I still don't understand why the amount of land on the east side had anything to do with building a bath on the west side.

When I broke my foot and had to live downstairs, I was glad I'd listened to my mother, and that I'd had just enough yard on the east side to build on the west.

I'd never paid much attention to 40B, but thought of it during an earlier town override election when wealthier people wanted to raise my property taxes again, beyond the existing levy limit, to raise more money for the schools.

I drew up a plan for my and my neighbor's lots. We'd find a developer, use 40B to bypass local zoning, tear down the two little houses, build two eight-unit, two-story "affordable" (if government subsidized) apartment buildings, then take our profits out west, leaving the town to educate all the new kids instead of just providing two adults with public safety, plowing and trash collection.

Unfortunately for my plan, I like my neighbors and didn't want them to lose value in their homes if 40B tenants allowed the property to deteriorate or brought crime to the neighborhood.

Yes, I do understand why people in some communities want zoning that will prevent "affordable" housing. It's not that I'd mind more diversity in town my local friends and I are pretty different from the wealthier override supporters ourselves but I don't want my property taxes to increase to service the new housing.

I'm sure this resistance is some of the motivation behind the effort to repeal 40B. A yes vote would override the state override of local zoning laws that often leads to overriding Prop. 2 for the required new schools.

In my ideal world, the state would use the broad-based income and sales taxes to fund vouchers for basic education, and property taxes would be used only for property-related services. Anyone could build any kind of housing on his own property, creating different kinds of neighborhoods. Public safety agencies would make sure all neighborhoods are safe.

But we live in the real world, where property taxes pay for education, local government can tell me what I'm allowed to build, state government can tell local government that it has to let developers build affordable housing, and political correctness and liberal "compassion" sometimes interfere with law enforcement in public housing.

Communities try to control their quality of life with zoning, while zoning often interferes with individual property rights.

In some places a home must have two acres all to itself. In others a landowner can create a mobile home park, while others won't allow even one mobile home on your extra lot. Besides, the state doesn't consider mobile homes "affordable housing" that could help satisfy 40B requirements, another thing I don't understand.

The state's hostility to landlords, who must deal with unreasonable tenant protection laws, also discourages the creation of more affordable rental housing.

And in a final absurdity, the United States Supreme Court has ruled in the Kelo decision that a community can take your little, affordable home by eminent domain if it can get more property tax revenue from a shopping mall on that piece of land. This reminds me of the documented abuses of 40B by developers who scam the system, and the many unsuccessful attempts to reform it on Beacon Hill.

The whole status-quo "affordable housing" thing doesn't make sense. I'm voting yes on Question 2 to repeal Chapter 40B.

The comments made and opinions expressed in her columns are those of Barbara Anderson
and do not necessarily reflect those of Citizens for Limited Taxation.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her column appears weekly in the Salem News and other Eagle Tribune newspapers; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Lowell Sun, Providence (RI) Journal and other newspapers.

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